Saturday, 19 August 2017

Light a candle

Light a candle

As I strolled happily along the Gallowgate after Celtic’s convincing win against Astana this week, I found myself behind a Dad & two boys of about 9 or 10. The lads were reliving the game in highly excited tones and even sang a few songs together, oblivious to the world. Their youthful enthusiasm and sheer exuberance made me smile. It reminded me of days long gone when, like them, I trailed along behind my old man as he marched through the dark streets of Glasgow towards Celtic Park. I still recall that tinge of excitement when I first saw the old floodlights shining through the gloom and knew that I was close to the stadium.

In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowds milling around the stadium, hear the noise, the songs, the smell the beer and cigarette smoke which lingered in the air. Then it was up to the turnstile where strong hands lifted me over and then that sheer adrenaline rush of reaching the top of the concrete stairs and seeing that lush, emerald rectangle of turf illuminated before us. The songs would already be pouring from the Jungle onto the pitch and to a boy starting out on his time as a Celtic fan it was an exhilarating assault on the senses. This was our theatre, our field of dreams for a couple of magical hours. Here a community gathered to back their team, sing their songs and dream a little.

As I watched Leigh Griffiths slam home Celtic’s fifth goal against Astana there was a joyful surge of mostly younger fans towards the striker as he celebrated in front of us. One or two even surmounted the barriers and raced to embrace their hero. It was in some ways a very symbolic moment. This club means so much to so many people and in that moment the fans and the players were one. When that happens Celtic is capable of punching above their weight and giving anyone a game. Celtic is now very close to the Group stages of the Champions League and only a minor miracle can stop them. You get the idea that Brendan Rodgers is too shrewd to allow anyone to think the job is done until it is actually over.

The euphoria which followed Wednesday’s thumping win wasn’t shared by all in Scotland. Ewan Murray, writing in the Guardian suggested that Celtic’s qualification for the Champions league is good for Celtic and no one else. He said the morning after the match …

But great for Scottish football? A boost to the status of the national sport? We should be spared this overreaction. When a club – or two clubs, let us be clear – with fiscal power to dwarf all before them earns another £30m advantage, the case for broader benefit is virtually non-existent. Only two factors serve as counterpoints: other clubs receive a small and variable consolidation payment from UEFA because of Celtic’s progress, and if indigenous players are afforded more game time against top-level opposition then no harm can be done. Beyond that, the benefit is entirely Celtic’s, as they should be perfectly happy to admit in celebration of their own efforts.’

The belief that Celtic’s success in recent years is bad for Scottish football isn’t universally shared. The club will sell out two stands at Rugby Park this weekend. They will also endow the other top flight clubs with a solidarity payment from UEFA of more than £250,000 should they qualify for the Champions League and for a club like St Johnstone, Kilmarnock or Motherwell that is equivalent to the revenue raised by two or three home games. Celtic is playing with several Scotland regulars in the side and they will be learning from facing top class opposition in Europe. The club is also bringing through Scottish promising youngsters from the Academy who will hopefully develop into Scottish international prospects.

Nor is Scottish football outside Glasgow’s east end devoid of hope. Aberdeen plan a new stadium, Hearts will open a new stand soon to complete the modernisation of Tynecastle, Hibs are back in the SPFL and filling their ground, even Dundee are looking like moving from dens. Rangers may be languishing due to lack of funding and board room squabbling but a club with such a big support will surely one day get their act together? With regards this so called lack of competition, seven different clubs have won the Scottish Cup in the last decade and seven different clubs have won the League cup in that same time period. The big clubs will always dominate in smaller countries as history shows. In Scotland 102 titles have been won by Celtic or Rangers whilst just 19 have been shared by all the other clubs. This is nothing new. The problem isn’t the domination of the title by Celtic, it is the others failing to rise to the challenge Rodgers’ side has lain down.

There’s seems to be an idea that Celtic’s domination of the SPFL is damaging to the game but as in all sports it’s up to the others to raise their game and put in a challenge. Celtic strives to improve each season and is often left to carry the Scottish flag in Europe on their own. Small countries the world over see their national leagues dominated by two or three sides. In Portugal only 2 titles have ever been won by teams outside the ‘big three’ (Benfica, Porto, Sporting CP) and yet their sides do reasonably well in Europe. In Norway, Rosenborg won the title every year from 1992–2004; that’s 13 in a row! Dinamo Zagreb won eleven successive Croatian titles before Rijeka won the league last year. Croatia, population 4.1 million, is ranked ten places above Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient table. Why is that? The Croatian league is poorly supported yet they produce good players who play in the top leagues around Europe. There is the real issue; we are simply not producing enough players of a high enough standard and the footballing authorities in Scotland have dithered for decades about how to reverse this situation.

Scotland’s coefficient as set by UEFA has the SPFL ranked as 26th in Europe. Countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Romania are all ranked higher than Scotland. This is despite the fact that Scotland is per head of population the best supported league in Europe. The problems in Scotland which affects our teams’ performances in Europe is a failure to produce a high standard of players compounded by low levels of finance in the game here. This is particularly true of the TV deal which sees Celtic receive around £3m for winning the title, a sum which is comfortably beaten by Sky pundit Thierry Henry’s yearly pay cheque.

Around Europe the bigger clubs are using their financial muscle to dominate their domestic leagues. Even in the bigger leagues some teams are ruling the roost year after year. Juventus are currently on six in a row while Bayern sit on five. Even the Champions League looks like a rich man’s club as the same mega rich clubs make it to the last eight every year. Indeed the trophy has been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona for six of the past nine years.

Elements of the media in Scotland should stop carping about Celtic’s success and get down to encouraging clubs in the vital job of producing footballers who will raise the standard of our game. A look at the success of Iceland who rose over 100 places in the UEFA rankings in a decade shows that it can be done. Money was invested in grass roots football, in properly trained coaches and supplying purpose built facilities which helped young players develop their skills all year round in the face of their long, cold winters. Huge, bright bubble like structures have been constructed in the tundra like countryside of one of Europe’s most northerly countries and house training facilities which all can access. If Iceland, with a population of 335,000 can build a team which reached the last 8 of the European Championships then surely a football mad country like Scotland could and should aim to be better than we currently are?

Monopoly is seldom good in any business but Celtic’s current domination of the SPFL is no excuse for the poor performances of Scottish clubs in Europe or the national side’s prolonged failure. We’ve been watching our reputation and performance slump for over thirty years and the response of our footballing authorities has been totally inadequate. It remains to be seen if the SFA’s ‘Project Brave’ spearheaded by ex-Celt Malky McKay will finally start to reverse this decline. I hope it does and we get back to producing top players again.

Celtic’s Academy is beginning to produce some promising players to join the impressive Kieran Tierney. Players like Aidan Nesbit, Anthony Ralston and Calvin Miller may soon be pushing at the first team door and young Dembele looks a real prospect too. We saw home produced players such Tierney, McGregor and Forest in action against Astana and that is always pleasing.

Celtic’s success in reaching the Champions League last season and in doing well in the qualifiers this season is something Scottish football should be proud of. There will always be those who dislike the club for their own reasons but like it or not Celtic are currently the only Scottish side doing anything to improve the battered reputation of our game in Europe. Perhaps some should stop carping and try to build sides which will emulate them. As someone once said, ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’

In the meantime the Hoops head for Astana and a real chance to once more secure Champions League football and brighten the dark nights of a Scottish autumn for many of us. I’ll head to those matches (should we qualify) with the same excitement I felt as a boy all those years ago when I ran to keep up with my old man as he marched through the streets of Glasgow to Celtic Park. 

I still get that thrill when I turn the corner and see the lights of Paradise waiting for me.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A long Shadow

A long Shadow

At dawn on Friday 1st September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison of the Westerplatte, Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), in what was to become the first military action in World War Two in Europe. Simultaneously, 62 German divisions supported by 1,300 aircraft of the Luftwaffe commenced the invasion and destruction of Poland. It would take the Wehrmacht just over a month to subdue Poland and the fate of the country was sealed when the Red Army invaded from the east in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

A thousand miles away from the unfolding tragedy in Poland the people of Scotland awoke to find their country on the brink of joining a war which Treaties with Poland suggested they surely would. The Scottish Football League had been awaiting instructions from the Home Office on what to do in the result of the UK going to war and there was an initial period of uncertainty. League matches would go ahead until clubs were notified differently. Saturday 2 September 1939 saw Celtic at Home to Clyde in a bruising match which the Hoops won 1-0. Rangers played on that same day at Cathkin Park where they defeated Third Lanark 2-1.
The following day Britain and France declared war on Germany after the Nazis ignored their ultimatum to withdraw from Poland. Of course the Scottish league simply couldn’t continue when the realisation of what war with Hitler’s Germany would mean. The Scottish League suspended the competition just 5 matches into the season. Players’ contracts were declared void and many full time professionals were forced to seek work outside football. Those at bigger clubs saw their wages slashed and some earned just £2 per week. Hastily organised ‘Emergency’ regional leagues were cobbled together with the clubs in the west joining the Western League and those in Tayside, Edinburgh and Aberdeen joining the Eastern League. It was thought that the shorter journeys to away fixtures would save petrol. These leagues played games and various Emergency Cup competitions with no real break for the whole war. It was felt that some recreation might be good for morale. These leagues were of course unofficial as no team could claim to be Scottish champions when facing just half of the country’s leading teams in their league competition.

One of the great controversies of the time was the amount of professional footballers who received offers of work in protected professions which excluded them from a call up to the armed forces. This lead to the legend of big strapping men hiding out in the shipyards being born and it was not without some substance. The erudite Bob Crampsey in his excellent history of the Scottish Football League stated…

‘Both Old Firm clubs would be severely criticised for their microscopic contribution of leading players to forces. Of the 22 players who wore the first team jerseys in September 1939 and those whose claim to such was unchallenged, only Willie Thornton and Dave Kinnear of Rangers and George Patterson and Willie Lyon of Celtic would end up in uniform.’

It remains a touchy subject among those who follow Rangers that so many of their leading players of the era were employed in ‘reserved occupations’ and thus avoided the call up to military service. As Crampsey points out though it is nonetheless a verifiable fact. That being said Rangers and Celtic players who did go to war such as Willie Lyon or Willie Thornton were undoubtedly brave men who would shake their heads at the petty point scoring of a minority of modern fans who have no comprehension of the horrors they witnessed on active service.

If the Western League had one great failing it was that Celtic didn’t approach it with any enthusiasm whatsoever. Players had to fit training and matches around their other occupations which in time of war made great demands on them. Men would wearily pull on their kit after a tough shift and the standard of football suffered. Good players were allowed to leave and younger, less experienced replacements brought in. On one occasion three of Celtic’s excellent Empire Exhibition cup winning side played against the Hoops. Good players such as Matt Busby were stationed in Scotland but Celtic ignored them and they took their services elsewhere. The club initially ran with a squad of just 14 players. Willie Maley was retired and Jimmy McStay brought in to mind the shop until normality returned.

Bob Crampsey also alludes to an age old issue in Scotland and that is the standard of refereeing. There were some hotly disputed games in the war years including one which ended in a virtual riot and the closure of Celtic Park for a month. Crampsey said…

‘Many of the Press were uneasy about what they considered to be scandalously partial refereeing. There had been disputed decisions in Rangers favour in both matches (Cup ties) and when Dumbarton were equally dissatisfied with the handling of a league match at Ibrox, Waverley, a normally phlegmatic Journalist was moved to reply to a plea from Mr R Lindsay, Chairman of Dumbarton, ‘’You are right in saying that Rangers don’t want favours from Referees but they certainly get them. I appeal to the SFA to let it be known that so far as whistlers are concerned all clubs are equal.’’

The war years saw guest players playing for many clubs in order to help them field a team. Hibs started a match at Tynecastle with players named in the programme as ‘Newman, Junior and Trialist’ playing up front. Some clubs didn’t know until near kick off time who could make it and who was still at work. On one occasion Rangers travelled to Pittodrie for a cup tie and had to call on a player spectating in the stand to fill their ranks. St Mirren were fined for ‘under the counter’ payments to Jimmy Caskie of Everton and Leslie McDowell of Manchester City who turned out for the Saints while stationed in Scotland. Five St Mirren Directors were suspended from the game indefinitely for paying the English players.

A game involving Celtic and Rangers at Ibrox in September 1941 ended in tumultuous scenes when Celtic’s supporters took umbrage at Refereeing decisions against their team. A full scale riot ensued as the home supporters gave as good as they got. Undoubtedly the trouble had been started by Celtic fans initially but the press again alluded to inexplicable Refereeing decisions. Sandy Anderson of the Glasgow Evening News wrote…

‘Then came one of those dreary penalty awards to Rangers and the next thirty minutes was hard to endure.’’

Celtic Park was closed for a month following the scenes at Ibrox and the team played their home matches at Shawfield. Jimmy McStay, try as he might, could not convince the Celtic Board to take wartime football seriously. The club floundered as Rangers swept all before them with the core of their pre-war side still available to them.

Those days built up much suspicion of officials among a generation of Celtic fans. That so called ‘paranoia’ lingered down the decades and incidents became magnified and viewed through the prism of a Scottish society which was in places still hostile to Celtic and all they thought the club represented. My old man could rhyme of incidents and the names of Referees he perceived as treating Celtic harshly. From MC Dale to RH Davidson, they were, in his book, unlikely to give Celtic a fair shake. While there is some substance to his belief that the playing field wasn’t level, the fact that Celtic underachieved on a huge level in those years added greatly to the frustration of the fans and perhaps magnified the poor decisions. 

The war ended in the summer of 1945 and a weary nation looked to football to entertain the masses and brighten the austere post war years. Crowds boomed and the Edinburgh derby would see 65,000 fill Easter Road. Pittodrie held 45,016 for a cup tie with Hearts and clubs all over the land saw crowds show up in record numbers. Celtic seemed unable to shake of their wartime slumber though and took years to build a side capable of challenging for the title. It wasn’t until 1954 that McGrory’s side captained by Jock Stein finally won the title; it was their first since 1938 and their last until 1966.

It was reported in the media this week that some Rangers fans would like the titles won in the unofficial war years to be added to their official honours. You wonder if they seriously believe this to be a credible claim given the fact they were Champions of a regional league in those years. To be national champions, a side must win a national league and unlike in World War One, such an entity simply didn’t exist between 1939-45. It may be that the fine Rangers side of the era would have won a national league but we’ll never know.

The argument that winning Regional titles in the sometimes farcical conditions of wartime football in Scotland could be construed as valid national championship wins is simply unsustainable. So too is any point scoring about players ‘hiding in the shipyards’ as both Celtic and Rangers had players in ‘reserved occupations.’ For some though, it’s all about sophistry. Winning the argument is more important than the truth. When it comes to football in Glasgow, the past casts a long shadow and old wrongs are not easily forgotten.

The game and society have moved on so much since those days even if a few who follow football remain stuck in the past. 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Be Worthy

Be Worthy
In a speech to the House of Commons in1843, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, described the children of London’s poorer areas as:

‘A fearful multitude of untutored savages... boys with dogs at their heels and other evidence of dissolute habits. Girls who drive coal-carts, ride astride upon horses, drink, swear, fight, smoke, whistle, and care for nobody...the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.’

To modern eyes his rant seems almost amusing but every generation has their ideas of how the young should behave. Perhaps the Earl should have asked about the lack of schooling and awful social conditions which produced these whistling, fighting, drinking girls rather than simply chastising them as untutored savages.

This weekend saw mixed reactions to the 7000 or so Celtic fans who travelled to the friendly match in Sunderland. Many Sunderland fans marvelled at the noise, passion and colour of the huge Celtic support while a few were following a darker agenda and looking for trouble. Sadly a few who follow Celtic obliged them. Such things happen in the tribal world of football particularly when young men have access to alcohol.

When you compare the media reaction to the 7000 voices singing ‘There’s only one Bradley Lowry’ to a couple of morons chanting a foul ditty about Lee Rigby, you could be forgiven for thinking bad behaviour is all they want to report. Make no mistake about it the vast majority of Celtic supporters were absolutely seething at the behaviour of those chanting about the murdered soldier. Not only because those who hate Celtic wrongly describe it as typical of our support but because it is morally repugnant. Of course many of those who follow another Glasgow side were onto it with glee and pontificating about how evil Celtic supporters are. We take no lessons in morality from hypocrites who have huge issues among their own support to concern themselves with. This isn’t about a point scoring, us v them debate. This is about the decent football fans of all clubs telling the moronic element that enough is enough.

There can however be no deflection from the need to address an issue within our own support. All the ‘whataboutery’ in the world won’t change the fact that a handful of our so called supporters behaved despicably and they need to wisen up. Thankfully the vast majority of Celtic fans called them out for it and hopefully they’ll engage their brains before opening their mouths in future. You can rely on the majority of Celtic fans to tell those going beyond the pale that enough is enough.

All big football clubs have their share of less cerebral followers and it is heartening to see Celtic supporters willing to self-police by letting folk know the standard of behaviour expected. We saw it 30 years ago when a handful of morons racially abused Mark Walters of Rangers at Celtic Park. In those pre internet days it was left to fellow supporters and the Fanzines to call out those guilty of this abhorrent behaviour. Not the View slammed them as ‘racist arseholes’ and reminded them they were standing against everything Celtic stood for.

Celtic fans have been traditionally known as knowledgeable, humorous and friendly. I see the work so many of them do for charity and the way they support the work of the Celtic FC Foundation. I can think of a hundred kindnesses I’ve experienced from fellow fans over the years. Being a Celt means trying to live up to those founding principles of charity, inclusiveness and good sportsmanship. It also means caring about the way the club and fellow Celtic fans are perceived. We basked in the wonderful behaviour of 80,000 Celts in Seville who were fine ambassadors for the club and won Fair Play awards from FIFA and UEFA. A good reputation is built over years but can be destroyed very quickly by a few unthinking and foolish individuals. Those who tarnish the club’s name will find elements of the media simply drooling at the prospect of more anti Celtic stories to push. They will also find that the vast majority of Celtic fans quickly letting them know that there are lines you don’t cross.

Two months ago we basked in the glory of a wonderful season. Let’s get back to doing what we do best; backing the team and driving the Bhoys on to more success. Leave the moronic chants to others and get back to being the best supporters around. An Italian Sports Magazine said after Celtic visited Juventus…

"The fantastic Celtic fans gave a real lesson in civility in sport. The chants and insults which blight too many games in Serie A are light years away from the spectacle of education and sportsmanship that the people in the Celtic away end offered... That horizontal striped white and green jersey is the uniform of a club worthy of the applause of the world."

That’s who we are, that’s who we must always aspire to be. It’s the duty of every generation of Celtic fans to educate the new generation about the Celtic way of doing things. When we accept poor behaviour among our own support as the norm we will have lost a vital ingredient of our identity. Celtic fans are not angels, not perfect by any means but they are decent enough to know when anyone has gone too far and they care enough to challenge them. This club means too much to too many to accept the behaviour we saw from a few at the weekend. I hope those involved learn and grow as human beings. It's a big responsibility being a Celt.

Be worthy.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Open to all

Open to all
Like many men of his generation, my old man was called up for national service at the age of 18. He would tell us with no little pride that he absconded and made his way back to Glasgow for every round of the Scottish cup in 1954 and watched Celtic beat Aberdeen in the final. He was finally caught by the MPs and on the long journey south to Aldershot was handcuffed to the suitcase rack. His arm was numb for days afterwards and he then had some months in the ‘Glass House’ to ponder his audacity. He ended up doing almost three years in the army instead of two due to his misbehaviour but told me it was worth it to see the Celts.

I still have a photo of him in army uniform and he always saw those days as a straight choice; ‘Ye either dae yer time or go tae jail.’ When he’d get drunk at the new year he’d tell us all sorts of tales of his escapades and on one memorable occasion said he told that he said to an officer discussing the ongoing Malayan war of Independence, ‘Well, I’m no fighting in the Jungle for 30 bob a week!’ My Uncle cut in at this point and said, ‘Only Jungle you fought in was the wan at Parkhied!’ His brief encounter with military life didn’t stop him being Celtic to the core and be the first to give us a good old Irish tune at family parties. I can still see him in memory’s view in the smoky living room calling for quiet and begin with the words….

‘In Mountjoy Jail one Monday morning, high upon the Gallows Tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of liberty….’

My old man and uncles were sons of an Irishman from County Clare who left for World War one with most of Redmond’s Irish Volunteers in 1914 to ‘fight for the freedom of small nations.’ They had been promised home rule for their own country when the war was over and most of them believed they would get it. Upon his return to Ireland in 1918 he found a country utterly transformed and already preparing to take up arms against the British. There were no qualms about it for him, Ireland came first and he put his military experience to use in the cause of Irish independence. It was an era in his life he spoke little of but he did what he thought was right on behalf of his people.

It was not unusual for Irishmen who had served in the British Army to do this. Tom Barry, famous leader of the West Cork Flying Column, had spent some years in the British Army before returning home to Cork. He was so appalled at the torture of Republican prisoners by the British that he decided to throw his lot in with the Rebels. Actions like the wiping out of 18 Auxiliaries in the ambush at Kilmichael in November 1920 sealed his reputation as one of the most formidable guerrilla fighters of the ‘Tan war.’ Barry said in his memoirs...

‘They said I was ruthless, daring, savage, blood thirsty, even heartless. The clergy called me and my comrades murderers; but the British were met with their own weapons. They had gone into the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go.’

James Connolly too served in the British army having lied about his age and enlisting at just 14. He often said that the time he served in Ireland with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots during the so called ‘Land War’ in which the military and police were used to supress and evict poor tenants fighting for their rights fed his growing socialist ideology and led him to fight for the rights of others all his life.

You might wonder why I’m relating these stories of folk who served in the British armed forces to you. It has to do with some internet chat I noticed this week after a banner emblazoned with the words ‘Willie Angus VC CSC’ appeared at Celtic Park. A tiny minority were displeased that such a banner was seen around the stadium and were scathing that any reference to Celtic supporters with a military background should be seen at Celtic Park. This narrow minded attitude runs counter to the principles of a club for all open to all. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion but no one has the right to say who can and who cannot follow Celtic. There is an increasingly intolerant attitude among some who seem to have no patience for anyone’s opinion but their own. Celtic is a broad church with room for folk from all walks of life. We long ago opened our arms to all who wished to follow the team. We don’t ask creed, don’t judge on race or ethnicity, don’t care about gender or sexual orientation, why then should some get a hard time because they have some connection to the armed forces? Most UK based Celtic supporting families will have some history in that area.

Willie Angus, like James Stokes, won the highest award for bravery this country can offer. The Celtic Supporters club in the Gorbals bears Stokes name to this day. Willie Maley was the son of an Army Sergeant and was born in Newry Barracks. Celtic’s emerging side of the late 1930s saw 22 players called up for military service in World War 2. It was a similar tale in the First World War with men like Peter Johnstone and at least six other former Celtic players perishing in the trenches. Hundreds of thousands of young men from Celtic supporting families would have served in the two world wars as well as those called up for national service in the decades after the last war.

Celtic and their supporters can rightly be proud that they are in general an open, welcoming bunch. Other clubs may have dabbled in the sort of narrow, exclusivist mind-set which in the end leads them into the barren land of intolerance. That has never been the Celtic way. The club is proud of its roots which are unashamedly in the Irish diaspora but is also proud that it opened its arms to all from earliest times.

My old man left us at the tragically young age of 63. A hard life contributed to his early passing. As he made his last journey along the London Road to Dalbeth cemetery he stopped one last time at his beloved Celtic Park. Here he had shared the highs and lows of his team’s fortunes; here he had known the warmth and comradeship of the terraces. He cared not about the creed or colour of his fellow fans or whether they had served in the military. They were all Celts and that was good enough for him.

It should be good enough for all of us. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Sort it out

Sort it out
I wasn’t particularly perturbed when Celtic drew Linfield in the Champions League qualifiers as Celtic are vastly superior to the Belfast side and were never likely to be in any danger. Brendan Rodgers does his job diligently and professionally and I knew he’d ensure the set up and mind set were right to get the job done. The off field politics around the Linfield tie were another matter altogether. I watched the news in the morning after the game in Belfast in a hotel in Spain and saw the hail of missiles aimed at Leigh Griffiths. It was all predictably moronic as was the visiting fans behaviour at Celtic Park a week or so later. With wearisome predictability they trotted out the morally debased ‘paedo’ tosh and the usual songbook they share with their Scottish cousins.

The Celtic support, which snapped up every available seat in the stadium watched the team dismantle the part timers from Belfast with little trouble. It was however a bit of a canter as in truth, Linfield are a nonentity in European football and it says much about how far Scottish football’s stature has fallen that Celtic are forced to scrap it out with teams like this every summer. Hopefully Celtic and Aberdeen can add some much needed co-efficient points this season by having extended runs in Europe.

The Scottish media however seemed less concerned with Celtic’s perfunctory whipping of a poor Linfield side than they were about banners which appeared in the safe standing area. It goes without saying that UEFA will take a stern view of this and no pointing out of their hypocrisy in not enforcing ‘non-political’ banners in other contexts will alter their course. There is a school of thought which suggests they were far from amused by the ‘Match the fine for Palestine’ campaign last season which saw over £170,000 raised by Celtic supporters (and many others) for charities in the occupied territories. As Celtic’s charge sheet gets longer the sanctions will increase. You play in their competitions you abide by their rules and at the end of the day there is no escaping that fact.

Celtic supporters indiscretions are small beer compared to the behaviour of some supporters around Europe. Last season’s Lyon v Besiktas Europa League tie was held up for 50 minutes after fighting, field invasions and fireworks being thrown in the stadium. Both clubs were hammered by UEFA.  Legia Warsaw’s hooligans caused a long awaited tie with Real Madrid to be played behind closed doors after appalling violence in a previous match. The vast majority of decent fans were denied a chance to see Ronaldo et al because of the idiot minority. That minority then fought the Police in Madrid in the return tie. So keep Celtic’s relatively minor offences in context. That being said the punishments will increase incrementally as Celtic is brought before the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body more frequently.

My thoughts on the two flags were initially that those who brought them to Celtic Park must surely have known that it’d cause a fuss and probably cause the club some disciplinary problems given it was a UEFA sanctioned match. What then were the reasons for the two banners? To get up the noses of Linfield fans or perhaps those closer to home who watch our support like hawks and hold back their phoney rage for just such incidents?  Either way, the banners were not clever, not witty and in my opinion a little self-indulgent and immature given recent history. They also goad the Celtic Board in a manner which can only have one outcome. Just as when Celtic play in UEFA’s tournaments they must abide by UEFA’s rules so too supporters who enter Celtic Park accept that certain standards of behaviour are expected there.

I have no idea who sanctioned or created the banners and in that context Celtic’s two match ban on 900 supporters in Section 111 seems a little harsh. You don’t punish the many to catch the few. There may be a feeling that after the pyrotechnics against Hearts last season and this week’s display that Celtic needed to be seen to be proactive in policing the standing area more firmly. It’s such a pity that we begin a season in fine health on and off the pitch and then descend into acrimonious rowing over such a palpably avoidable situation. With the club dominant in Scotland and looking to build a side capable of competing in Europe we shouldn’t be shooting ourselves in the foot like this.

My return to social media after a week’s holiday wasn’t entirely pleasant as there seemed to be a real division among supporters about the incidents at the Linfield game. Some of the vitriol and name calling was over the top given we all back the same side. Some seem unable to handle the fact that others have opinions which differ from theirs. Celtic is a broad church, a club for all and there can surely be disagreements without people falling back on absolutist opinions which lead them describe fellow Celts as ‘soup takers’ or ‘Tories’ on one hand or fans with a ‘WATP mentality’ or who ‘think they are above the rules’ on the other. There will always be fans interested in politics given Celtic’s historical and cultural roots just as there will always be fans who go to support the team and take little interest in that side of things. That’s normal and healthy but it becomes problematic when the actions of some affect the club and other supporters.

I’m sure many of the 900 supporters denied entry to the next two home games will feel rightly aggrieved that they can’t watch their team.  Celtic’s action in closing the safe standing area does look harsh but from their perspective they need to be seen to be doing something if they genuinely feel safety is an issue or the behaviour of some supporters is endangering the club’s reputation and catching the eye of UEFA again. Clubs around the UK are interested in Celtic’s safe standing area as it has been a huge success. The atmosphere and noise it generates and spreads around the stadium is excellent but if fans based there don’t exercise some form of self-policing then the club inevitably will.

It’s all manna from heaven to those who with no love for Celtic who like to see and foster such discord. The club is streets ahead of our main rivals in Scotland and has just sold out season tickets for the coming campaign. We are building a fine side and have an excellent manager who is bringing out the best in the players. We are set for another tilt at the Champions League and are set to build on a historic invincible season. The last thing we need is unnecessary discord among the fans. Those involved should sit around the table and thrash out what is acceptable at Celtic Park and what is not and then get on with the business of giving us a team to be proud of and a support which is envied across Europe.

When Celtic and the supporters are united in common purpose then nothing our enemies can do will touch us. Sort it out and let’s get back to backing the team with the fervour and passion we are famous for.

Individually we are a drop in the ocean, united we are an unstoppable wave.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Through the Barricades

Through the Barricades

I was driving through the Glasgow rain recently listening to the radio when the Spandau Ballet hit ‘Through the barricades’ came on. ‘Do you know the story behind that song?’ my friend enquired. I said that it sounded as if it was basically a song about star crossed lovers on different sides of a conflict. Some of the lyrics were consistent with the Troubles but it was basically fictional wasn’t it? As we drove on my friend told me about a Celtic fan by the name of Thomas Reilly, better known to his friends as ‘Kidso.’

Belfast boy Kidso was Celtic mad by all accounts and would even on occasion skip the boat at Larne to get to Scotland and then hitch to Glasgow such was his love for the Hoops. He was the life and soul of the party, quick to give you a song and a bit of craic. His older brother Jim was the drummer for Irish Punk band, Stiff Little Fingers and Kidso enjoyed music too.  Jim got him a job as a roadie and he worked with some of the big bands of the era such as Spandau Ballet, The Fun boy Three, Paul Weller and Bananarama. He still headed for Celtic Park when the opportunity arose and his passion for Celtic never waned.

Kidso was home in Belfast in the summer of 1983 and was heading home to his folks’ place when he and his mates were stopped by a patrol of British Soldiers. After answering their questions and facing the sort of harassment young Irish lads often endured in those days, Kidso headed off. He was wearing just a pair of shorts and carrying his T shirt as it was a hot August evening. It is not disputed what happened next; one of the soldiers dropped to one knee and took aim at Kidso. As his friends looked on the soldier shot him in the back and killed him. The soldier in question was convicted of murder in a court of law as the Judge refused to accept his version of events in which claimed an unarmed man wearing shorts and walking away was a threat to the army patrol.

Astonishingly the soldier who was given a life sentence was released in 22 months and allowed to rejoin his Regiment.

As you’d expect, the death of Thomas ‘Kidso’ Reilly had a huge effect on his family and friends as did the lack of any real justice. Despite coming from a nationalist background, he was more into music and Celtic than politics. Pop band Bananarama attended his funeral and Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode, Altered Images and The Jam sent wreaths to express their respect. Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet said a few years later....

"I'd been to Ireland a few times - it was quite shocking for privileged boys as we were. When we went back in 1985, Jim Reilly offered to take me to Falls Road to visit the grave of Thomas. As I took that walk, I could see the barricades set up dividing the two main streets, the Protestant side and the Catholic side. It didn't occur to me to write a song at that point, but it was a huge influence. I was living in Ireland about a year later, and 'Through The Barricades' came to me in one evening. About two in the morning, lyrics started appearing in my head and I picked up a guitar - this has never happened to me before. I felt like the song was leading me itself.

Incidents like the murder of Kidso Reilly were sadly all too common in the darker days of the troubles and those who lived through those times have many such tales to tell. Kidso is remembered in commemorations and on a plaque on a wall in his home town. His parents, Jim and Bridie Reilly were of course heart-broken at the loss of their son as was the rest of the family. The British media made much of his links to the music industry and in a sense he lost his identity, becoming the ‘Road Manager’ of a pop group rather than a loving son and brother. The press initially claimed his death had occurred in ‘disputed’ circumstances but of course the Judge had the vision to see through the lies.

It’s amazing how a discussion about a song can lead you to discovery stories like that of Thomas Reilly. In remembering him today I make no political points or judgements.  I merely recall a fellow Celtic fan lost at a tragically young age to a callous and cowardly act. Thankfully more tranquil times have come to his home city and such acts are hopefully consigned to history forever. With Celtic due in Belfast next week to play Linfield there will be no doubt bellicose noises from some but the city is transformed in many ways since those darker times.

I hope Celtic play to their form and win well at Windsor Park. Kidso would have liked that.

Rest in Peace Kidso and all the innocents lost in the Troubles.

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Same Old Song

The Same Old Song

Many years ago when I was a mere primary school lad, I walked down the High Street in Glasgow with my mum to what she called the ‘Holy Shop.’ It stood on the western side of the street not far from Glasgow Cross and sold all manner of Catholic devotional items. From Mass cards to statues; from rosaries to crucifixes the ‘Holy Shop’ was the place to go. On this particular Saturday I stood looking around the shop as my mum gabbed quietly to the lady behind the counter. To my young eyes the huge array of religious images and artefacts covering the walls looked quite impressive. There was a stillness about the place, a calmness which gave it the air of a small church.

In the distance we could hear the thump of drums being carried on the summer air like far off artillery. I looked at my mum wondering if she’d call a halt to her conversation and move on before the ominous sound came closer but she seemed deaf to it. Before long, the thump of the drums merged with the shrill sounds of flutes and came nearer. Through the grill of the window the first bands of an Orange Parade could be discerned in their garishly coloured outfits. They seemed absorbed in what they were doing although some who followed on the pavement were less focused. As I watched, a few of the more drunken camp followers took time to spit on the window of the shop and bang the grill with their fists. There were the usual tired shouts of worn out slogans such as ‘Fuck the Pope’ but it was in truth more empty posturing than seriously threatening given the fact that the Police were seldom far away at these gatherings.

What struck me even as a young lad was the way the older generation accepted such behaviour as the norm. The woman behind the counter barely broke the conversation with my mother as this occurred outside and kept up the chatter as she stepped around the counter to quietly turn the closed sign and release the bolt on the Yale lock. We waited in the shop for twenty minutes or so till the parade had passed before heading out and back up the High Street towards home.

Growing up a Catholic in 1970's Glasgow meant dealing with such incidents and learning the best ways to keep safe during the marching season. You needed to know the geography of the place; where to avoid, where was safe and not take unnecessary risks. There were pubs, areas and even closes to be avoided at certain times of the year. The city centre was usually a neutral area but even there when the flutes and drums were sounding you would see crucifixes being tucked into shirts, zips going up to cover Celtic shirts and folk heading into stores or pubs till the procession had passed. Often you’d catch people’s eye and they’d shrug or shake their heads. A few would mutter under their breath about banning this sort of thing but still it went on year after year.

My last experience of it was in Glasgow Green a year or so back and it hadn’t really changed in character since I was a boy although the falling numbers suggests it’s on the wane. It wasn’t unusual to see 70,000 at the ‘big Walk’ in days past. They’re doing well to get 10,000 now. One thing which has given it something of a boost in recent years is the ongoing issue of Scottish Independence. Despite silly talk by some of the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics there is no serious traction for the politics of bigotry among the vast majority of Scots. The rise of the SNP may have lead some on the Loyalist fringes to talk of Scotland using some of the same imagery they use when describing the situation in the six counties but there are huge differences in the two contexts. The constitutional question has undoubtedly given a temporary boost to Orangeism just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral to irrelevance.

As I watched the drinking and singing of cringe worthy songs last summer in the park it was clear that such gatherings have little to do with religion and much to do with a group seeking to find some sort of common identity. Most of the people I saw in Glasgow Green were unlikely to be at church the following day. The Church of Scotland’s own figures suggest just 137,000 Scots are regular attendees at Church with the average age being around 60. In 1956 1.3 Million attended weekly services. Scotland is an increasingly secular country and this has forced the main Christian churches to work together in face of a hostile environment where their values are increasingly challenged and even ridiculed.

The Church of Scotland once produced a report entitled ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’ which was basically a racist diatribe demanding the halting of immigration from Ireland and the repatriation of many of the Irish already here. By ‘Irish’ of course they meant the Catholic Irish as the 25% of Irish coming from a Protestant background were it seemed their kinfolk. The church belatedly apologised for the report and it is in fairness a document of its time. The 1920s and 30s saw mass unemployment and poverty and in such times of stress for any society there is a tendency for some to turn on the ‘other’ the ‘strangers’ in their midst. Thus we saw overtly sectarian political parties such as the Scottish Protestant League win 23% of the popular vote at elections in Glasgow. In Edinburgh the Protestant Action Society fared even better with 31% of the vote but when 20,000 of their followers stoned and attacked a Catholic Eucharistic congress in the city in 1936 the Authorities cracked down hard on them and ordered the Police to take robust action. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh said with commendable fairness…

‘The sectarian spirit is a heady thing and some people seem to have lost their moral and mental balance over this subject. Every honest minded British citizen deplores Jew baiting in Nazi Germany, we want no baiting of Roman Catholics here. There is enough ill will in the world,  even in our own country, without adding the fires of religious fanaticism to it.’

Watching the cavorting in the park last year it was hard not to conclude that it all had a hollow and empty feel to it, as if the mythology of it all was somehow as important as the concrete reality of post Brexit Britain unfolding around them. Some undoubtedly do hold prejudices against Catholicism and express them in the crudest of terms but to define yourself by what you hate is always self-defeating in the end. These parades are not benign expressions of cultural identity as drunkenness and violence are not uncommon and many ordinary citizens stay home to avoid them. They remain a curious left over from more intolerant times, an echo of days most of us have left behind.

The Orange Order does try to warn the wilder spirits to behave but it remains a fact that their displays interfere with the lives of many fellow citizens. They also offer a fig leaf or respectability to serious bigots who loiter on the fringes spreading their poison. They would of course deny that they are in any way a sectarian organisation but the view from the street tells a different story. They may not be wholly responsible for the hangers on who follow the parades but I've seen enough over the years from members of the order to convince me that they do have an issue with bigots in their ranks.

A friend of mine from Coatbridge commented wryly on the bad atmosphere in the town when a big parade took place there a few years ago. He said with no little irony that a town famous for the Time Capsule leisure facility had to put up with poor behaviour from many who appeared stuck in their own time capsule. Wouldn’t it be nice to hold a celebration all Scots can support and enjoy no matter what their ethnic, religious or cultural background?

The world has moved on so much since my childhood experience in the ‘Holy shop’ but for some it’s the same old song.