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.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

Celtic’s possible Champions league qualifying tie with Linfield FC has caused a lot of debate among the Celtic support with some being unhappy that the club is refusing to take any tickets for the tie. The Police Service of Northern Ireland were rightly concerned about the date of any possible match not coming at the height of the marching season when their resources are most stretched. A delay of a couple of days seems wise in that sense as many Scottish Orangemen and their camp followers would be in town too and that would only add to the cocktail of negative possibilities. The refusal of tickets means that an occasion which would have a real edge to it may well be toned down a little.

Celtic has played in Belfast in the past with the most recent occasion being the tie with Cliftonville a few years ago. On that occasion the Celtic support was welcomed like brothers and segregation was unnecessary. Indeed, many Belfast folk are huge Celtic fans and their disappointment about not getting to see the side in action against Linfield is obvious. Some live within a mile or two of Windsor Park and are understandably gutted about the decision not to allow Celtic fans to attend. These are committed fans who travel thousands of miles every season and spend thousands of pounds in the process to back Celtic. It’s bitterly ironic that now Celtic is playing in their home town they can’t get to see them. Celtic may worry about their reputation should any crowd issues materialise but surely the PSNI should be able to Police a game adequately?  It’s also possible some fans might purchase tickets anyway and take their chances on the night. That scenario could be more problematic than giving Celtic fans an end and keeping them all together.

Historically, Celtic played numerous matches in Belfast, particularly against the now defunct Belfast Celtic and their trips to Ireland were always eagerly anticipated. Belfast Celtic was a fine team in the inter-war years and they and Linfield fought it out for the title for most of that period. Their rivalry was of course played out against the historical backdrop of the events going on in Ireland at the time. Partition in 1922 had marooned a sizable nationalist population in the new six county state and their presence there wasn’t always welcomed. Poet Seamus Heaney said of growing up in those times…

‘You didn’t grow up in Lord Brookenborough’s Ulster without developing a ‘them and us’ mind-set. Even though there was no sectarian talk or prejudice at home there was still an indignation at the political status quo. We knew and were given to know that Ulster wasn’t meant for us, that the British connection was meant to displace us.’

That it irked some to know that a third of the people in the new northern state were not of ‘their kind’ is an understatement. That third has now grown to be almost half the population of the six counties. The future will increasingly see those once excluded and gerrymandered out of influence taking a full and leading part in decisions affecting their people.

In those years after the war though Belfast Celtic were, like their Glasgow cousins, a symbol of a community and a source of pride to a people expected to ‘know their place’ but as in Glasgow these Croppies were not ones for lying down. For others Belfast Celtic like their Glasgow counterparts were a symbol of all they disliked.

In terms of their rivalry with Linfield, things came to a head in December 1948 when they met in a keenly anticipated league match. When Jimmy Jones, Belfast Celtic’s young forward tackled Bob Bryson, the later went down heavily and was stretchered off. It was an innocuous tackle with no real malice but the crowd were on Jones’ back from that moment on. Things were hardly helped by the public address system announcing to an already volatile crowd at half time that Bryson’s leg had been broken. The second half saw fighting in the crowd and two players sent off as things got heated on the pitch too. Belfast Celtic took the lead from a penalty but in the dying seconds Billy Simpson scored an equaliser. Simpson was later to play for Rangers, scoring their only goal in the 1957 League Cup Final which they lost 7-1 to Celtic.

As the final whistle sounded fans spilled onto the field and several Belfast Celtic players were, to use the euphemistic language of the time, ‘jostled’ by hostile Linfield fans. The ire of the more virulent sort though was saved for Jimmy Jones who was thrown over the parapet wall into the enclosure and beaten by the mob. Jones leg was badly broken. He recalled what happened the following day as he lay in hospital…

‘When they came towards me I could see nothing but heads. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t find a Policeman. Somehow I made it onto the running track but was thrown over the parapet wall into the enclosure. I got up and ran and I was kicked. I tried to get up again but it was hopeless. My leg wobbled. I heard a Policeman say (to the mob) ‘If you don’t stop kicking I’ll use my baton.’ I think the crowd must have held it against me for the Bryson incident.’

Linfield FC was horrified at these events and rightly castigated the thugs among their support for the violence. They apologised to Jones and made it known that the incident with Bryson was a complete accident. For Belfast Celtic, there were hard decisions ahead and in the end the club withdrew from the League and left football in Northern Ireland all the poorer for their absence.

Times have moved on since those dark days even if some still cling to old attitudes. Policing is better, stadiums more conducive to crowd control and supporters generally know that they will be brought to book for any public displays of disorder. Indeed a year after the disorder following the Hibs-Rangers Scottish Cup Final the all seeing eye of CCTV was still bringing culprits to court.

It’s a little sad that the ordinary, decent supporters of Celtic and Linfield can’t go watch a European tie between their sides. Of course it would be tie laced with tribal rivalry but football thrives on such contests. Personally I’d have switched the first leg tie to Celtic Park but I can see why Linfield want the home tie first. A spanking in Glasgow might kill the tie and lessen interest there. Celtic may well have their fans safety in mind with their decision to refuse a ticket allocation but perhaps they also have one eye on UEFA who have fined them 9 times in the past 10 years or so for fan behaviour, much of it admittedly fairly mild by standards elsewhere. As the club plans to continue its growth as a global brand, bad publicity is not what they desire.

Whatever happens in Belfast it remains imperative that the club progresses to the next phase of the Champions League. The money and exposure Celtic receives for making it to the group stages is important but so too is its impact on potential signings who see the allure of those big nights in Europe. It’s also a huge boost for the support who simply love these big nights under the lights. Should Celtic make it then few will remember the tie with Linfield as the Champions League anthem reverberates around the stadium and 60,000 Celtic fans split the east end sky with that almighty roar. Nothing in domestic football can match it.

Eyes on the prize Bhoys, eyes on the prize.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Days of Thunder

Days of Thunder

There was an ominous rumble of thunder over Hampden Park as Tom Rogic glided elegantly into the Aberdeen penalty box and fired Celtic to a memorable cup final victory last week. As the drifting Glasgow rain fell, half of Hampden’s great bowl celebrated wildly while the other half looked on with a mixture of stunned disbelief and probably a fair degree of resignation as Celtic had stopped Aberdeen in their tracks in 6 out of 6 games across three competitions this season. In truth, after a first half which Aberdeen shaded, Celtic looked the stronger, fitter side as the game wore on and had a few chances to take the lead. A goal was coming but until it did there was always that fear lurking in the back streets of your mind that Aberdeen would snatch a winner. As the clock ticked down, the game was there for someone to grab by the scruff of the neck and force the outcome. Thankfully it was the big Celt who seized the moment.

In a season filled with dramatic moments Rogic’s exhilarating winner came in the last moments of the last game of the season and demonstrated that this Celtic side, like all good Celtic sides, fights right to the end. They have demonstrated all season long that they can find a way to win games even on those few occasions when the team were not playing particularly well. This season though will best be remembered for Celtic’s return to playing a fast expansive game. It has been a season of goals, attacking play and real pride that Rodgers’ side not only completed a wonderful treble and an invincible season, but did so playing football the Glasgow Celtic way.

They had scored 106 goals in the league, collected 106 points, won all three major competitions and in 12 games against their two closest rivals had won 11 and drawn one. There were two 5-1 demolitions of Rangers bookending an invincible league campaign and the team had performed with some credit in the toughest Champions League group they have ever played in. The supporters too had played their part turning up in huge numbers and giving the side the sort of backing some of the so called ‘big clubs’ in England would envy.

The joy of this season has been doubled by the fact that the Celtic family is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the triumph in Lisbon in 1967; that achievement is still recognised as the greatest deed in Celtic’s long and illustrious history and rightly so. It has been wonderful to watch the stadium being lit up by thousands of phones during the dark days of winter as the Celtic Park faithful sing their homage to the men of 1967. In every game this season the sixty seventh minute has echoed to the words of a familiar song;

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands, to see the bhoys become champions 67.’ 

Most of those singing will not have been alive when the Lions mauled Inter but have been taught the stories by relatives who were and watched video footage of Stein’s remarkable side. All Celtic followers are rightly proud of the achievements of 50 years ago.

In the days following that dramatic cup final with Aberdeen I caught up with some of the excellent documentaries which recalled that summer of 1967 and the deeds of a team of working class Scottish lads who took Europe by storm 50 years ago. The best was undoubtedly BBC Scotland’s excellent ‘Glasgow 1967: The Lisbon Lions.’ It captured the spirit of the times brilliantly. Glasgow was on the cusp of modernisation and huge swathes of so called slum areas were about to be demolished and replaced by high rise towers and soulless schemes which lacked the community spirit of the old districts. My old man used to point to the two ugly tower blocks built by the Gallowgate as we walked to Celtic Park and say with a wry smile, ‘Filing cabinets for people.’ Those flats stood for almost 50 years, a two fingered salute to the working class community forced to deal with their communities being ripped apart by the city planners and their workplaces vanishing as the scourge of mass unemployment returned.

As Glasgow was being remade in the sixties, its football sides were a shining light to the people who followed them with such passion. Celtic simply sparkled that season and approached European ties with a confidence which belied the fact it was their first time in the European cup. As Zurich and Nantes were swept aside the fans began to think the impossible might just be conceivable. As Vojvodina fell to McNeill’s last gasp header and Dukla were fatally wounded at a raucous Parkhead, Celtic found that they were standing on the cusp of greatness. Surely they would not fail? Surely those thousands who followed them to Lisbon would find a happy ending to their incredible story?

History records that Celtic defeated Inter Milan 2-1 in the twelfth European Cup final. Those bare statistics don’t begin to describe the verve and skill nor the fitness and spirit of a Celtic side which would not be denied their moment of glory. Their victory was a triumph for football and a triumph for a club which was born into a harsh and uncaring world.

As the last of the Lions age and their deeds recede into history it is hugely satisfying that the supporters show them such affection. Of course it pains us to see Billy McNeill, once so vigorous and commanding as a player and Manager, suffering from early onset dementia. None of us will escape the ravages of time but few of us will achieve in our lives what Billy and his comrades did in that golden era.

The bonds between the Lisbon Lions are as strong as ever and one of the most beautiful moments of the documentary shows them as young men in their prime emerging from the dark tunnel at the Estadio Nacional into the Portuguese sunshine. Those green and white shirts seemed to glimmer in the bright sunlight as a piano played a delicate and poignant version of a tune recognisable to all Celtic fans as ‘In the heat of Lisbon.’ I must confess to feeling emotional as I thought of those young Scottish lads who played with such flair and style on that day long ago when history was made.

So when the thunder rumbled at Hampden last week and Tom Rogic sealed a famous cup win, I was delighted that in this special season Celtic had risen to the challenge and played the game in a manner the Lions would have approved of.  History swirls around Celtic like incense in a Cathedral; you can feel it, you can smell it and you can sense it. The class of 2016-17 kept faith with the bhoys of 1966-67.

The last scenes in the documentary showed Bobby Lennox gazing out to sea on his beloved Ayrshire coast, thinking of his comrades and saying wistfully ‘We were like brothers, I loved them. I absolutely loved them.’ Bertie Auld, eyes misting with tears spoke of his absent comrades with three simple words; ‘I miss them.’

We all do Bertie. We miss Ronnie, Tommy, Bobby, Jimmy, Joe, Sean and of course big Jock. They will never be forgotten.

I hope next season we still occasionally sing their praises; still make some old men smile when they hear Celtic Park reverberating to the words:

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands to see the bhoys become champions 67!’

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Greatest Feat in Football

The Greatest Feat in Football

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s epic European cup win of 1967 has been a joy behold. The media has been full of pictures and video clips of smiling faces beneath the blue Portuguese skies of a summer long ago. Social media has also been awash with pride at the achievements of Stein’s team. This feel good factor is of course augmented by the current squad’s triumphant march through a season which sees them on the brink of a historic Treble and a season of invincibility in Scotland.

How do measure what the Lisbon Lions achieved? What rod can you use? A bunch of lads who learned their football in the streets and back courts of industrial Scotland took on the sophisticates, the so called elite of European football, and beat them. I don’t just mean ‘beat’ them in the normal sense of winning a football match, Celtic shattered Inter, demoralised them and left them in no doubt that they’d been thrown to the Lions.


Celtic breathed life and joy back into a game being strangled by defensive football and cynicism. There was an almost naïve approach to Celtic’s play in that magical year. They basically told opponents; ‘We’ll be attacking you from the start. What are you going to do about it?’  In that magnificent season of 1967 no one could live with them and Celtic swept the board by winning every trophy they competed for.

For Celtic supporters those days carry an iconic significance. Those who saw that magnificent team play wear their memories like medals. For those too young to have seen the Lions play there is an added sense of pride that even half a century ago Celtic was capable of such brilliance. Make no mistake about it; Celtic’s destruction of Inter Milan was a seminal moment in European football history. Negativity and defensive tactics were strangling the game at the top level till a bunch of pale faced Scots arrived on the scene and blew the cobwebs away. It is no coincidence that the great teams which followed Celtic were committed to a more expansive, attacking game. It is a measure of how Celtic dominated Inter that defender Tarcisco Burgnich told Jonathan Wilson in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid- A history of football tactics (2008)

‘’We just knew, even after 15 minutes that we were not going to keep them out. It was a miracle that we were still 1-0 up at half time. Sometimes in those situations your confidence increases and you start to believe. Not on that day. Even in the dressing room at half time we looked at each other and we knew we were doomed. I remember at one point Picchi turned to the goalkeeper and said, ‘Guiliano, let it go, just let it go. Sooner or later they’ll get the winner.’  I never thought I would hear those words. I never imagined my captain would tell our keeper to throw in the towel. But that shows how destroyed we were at that point. It’s as if we didn’t want to prolong the agony.’

The agony was not prolonged as Steve Chalmers, a lad from the Garngad, provided the coup de gras and guided Celtic's greatest side to glory.


The transformation of the Clydeside in the 50 years since that Lisbon triumph has been remarkable. The shipyards and heavy industry have receded and the bright flats, shinning Science Centre and SECC have risen in their place. Social conditions in Glasgow too have changed greatly too as have social attitudes. Celtic’s triumph not only delighted the community which gave birth to the club but also made many Scots feel a sense of pride that a club from these shores could play that way and bring such glory to Scotland.

Celtic will always be the repository of collective memory and identity for those who are children of the Irish diaspora in Scotland but Lisbon opened doors, opened eyes, and the club increasingly found more and more supporters from all walks of life. Celtic has always opened its arms to all and rightly eschewed any thoughts of the narrow, exclusive tribalism others sullied themselves with. The club is rightly proud of its Irish Catholic roots but equally proud of its inclusive ethos. Tom Devine, himself of Irish stock and Scotland’s best known historian took the long view of what Lisbon meant to the Irish Catholic community of Scotland…

‘We weren’t exactly an underclass but we were pretty close to it and this team was the sporting Champions of that ethnicity. Lisbon was probably almost as significant as the visit of the Pope in 1982. Lisbon was, if you like, a stage in their emancipation.’

So it was that thousands of them gathered in the very modern setting of the Hydro to celebrate the achievements of the Lions of Lisbon. It was a joyous night, a night of poignancy and much emotion. Sir Alex Ferguson, a man steeped in Glasgow’s footballing culture said of the achievements of 1967…

"They set the pattern for a period, particularly when Manchester United the next year did it. From '65 to '67, if someone had written a book about it they would call it fiction. It was amazing. It was the greatest feat in football. They were pioneers for British football, there's no doubt about that, Sir Matt at Manchester United was rebuilding the team after the Munich air disaster, but they got to a semi-final, which was a great achievement for a very young side. For Celtic to do it with 11 players from within 25 miles of each other is astonishing. This event will recognise the achievement, but also applaud the players and management staff who achieved it. It will never be done again."

As thousands sang, cheered and cried a few tears of joy in the Hydro there was a sense that Celtic continues to be far more than just a football club. They remain the emblem of a community which has come on a remarkable journey. It was somewhat poignant they had gathered to celebrate the achievements of their team in sight of the very docks where the overcrowded cattle boats once disgorged their human cargo escaping hunger and poverty in Ireland. Those impoverished and often despised people overcame bigotry, exploitation and appalling social conditions to eventually take their place in every sector of Scottish society.

So it is with pride that we remember the Lisbon Lions. They gifted us an incredible legacy. They stated with unmistakable style and skill that this is what you can achieve if you believe, if you fight to the end and never give up.

Fifty years have come and gone
Yet still the memory lingers on
The pride, the joy, the sheer delight
They raised us to the highest height
Glowing shirts of white and green
Carried our hopes, lived our dreams
That day beneath the Lisbon sun
When the Lions roared and football won!

From the voices of countless Celtic folk down the ages I say to the wonderful Lisbon Lions:

Thank You. Your achievements fill us with pride. As long as there is a Celtic you will have the place of highest honour in our hearts.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Money can't buy you that

I watched Celtic dismantle Partick Thistle this week with a display of sparkling, attacking football any side in Celtic’s history would have been proud of. This season has been a triumph for Brendan Rodgers’ side as they have cut through the domestic opposition like a combine harvester through a field of corn. Now the side are just two matches from completing an incredible unbeaten domestic season which will guarantee them a deserved place in Celtic history. Not since Maley’s Celtic side of 1897-98 completed their 18 game league programme undefeated has the club managed this feat. Even the magnificent Lisbon Lions found a bogey team in 1966-67 to blot their otherwise unblemished league record; Dundee United defeating them home and away by a 3-2 margin.

In any senior league, in any country, completing the season undefeated is a rare and laudable feat. Celtic is not only closing in on this feat but also on a Scottish points and goals record. In the longer term Scotland’s longest top flight unbeaten run of 62 games set by Celtic, (20 November 1915 – 21 April 1917) might also come under threat given the prowess of the current side. That being said, Rodgers is wise enough to take the ‘one game at a time’ approach and will look no further forward than Sunday’s final league game with Hearts. That game will be an awesome spectacle to see as a sold out stadium prepares to party and will create a whole stadium 'tifo' to honour the Lisbon Lions. The season is entering an exciting and climatic finale. So much is within reach of this young Celtic side and the supporters are willing them to jump these last two hurdles and complete the season as ‘Invincibles.’ Few would bet against it.

Of course there are those who seek to belittle Celtic’s achievements and not just the usual suspects here at home. I got into conversation with an Irish chap who supports Liverpool and found that he had sadly succumbed to that old arrogance we have seen for years from many who follow the English game. The usual ‘My Nan would be top Scorer in Scotland’ nonsense followed, which was particularly ironic given the chap had dumped any interest in his local league in Ireland to try to grasp some EPL glory.

It wasn’t always like this as I recall a Celtic v Manchester City game played in Dublin in 1992. Celtic supporters made up 95% of the crowd and the English side were well beaten. Football then was more of a level playing field as satellite TV was in its infancy and the financial clout of English clubs was not yet drawing in the best mercenaries in Europe. Celtic was more popular in Ireland in those days than most English sides as their roots are deep in the soil of that country. The rise of Sky TV was to change that as a new generation grew up watching English football packaged and sold very slickly.

Of course, to compare Scottish football to the billionaire’s playground of the EPL is simply absurd. England has 53 million people making it almost exactly ten times the population of Scotland. It also has a deal with satellite TV which brings in literally billions of pounds. Scotland is the poor relation in financial terms but that doesn’t mean football here is as poor as some of our more arrogant southern friends sometimes suggest. Just ask Joey Barton who came up here stating he would be player of the year and that ‘Scott Brown isn’t in my league,’ only to be handed his ass on a plate in most games he played. Not only do I recall him being totally outclassed in the 5-1 drubbing at Celtic Park last September, but a Hamilton Accies player actually nut-megged him at Ibrox as his side were lucky to gain a 1-1 draw. He arrived saying he wanted to be the best player in the country and left saying the Scottish media had built him up to be ‘like Neymar or Messi.’ He said in the wake of that 5-1 mauling at Celtic Park…

“After Celtic, I’m having to sit here and take it on the chin – however unjust I feel that is. It’s difficult when I’m playing at a level which, clearly, I’ve not played at before. It’s a much lower level and I’m trying to help people get to a higher level. They think me helping is me trying to say, ‘You’re not good enough’. It’s difficult."
Personally, I’ve seen good, bad and average English players in Scottish football. I have never felt Mr Barton was a particularly gifted footballer and he didn’t stick out as a good player in a bad Rangers side that day. He looked as mediocre as the rest.

Despite what the critics say, Scottish clubs have historically punched above their weight in Europe, reaching 10 European finals. (Rangers 4, Celtic 3, Aberdeen 2, Dundee United 1) No nation of 5 million or so people can claim such a proud record. Countries of similar size to Scotland such as Norway, Ireland, Croatia or Denmark all fall well short of Scotland’s historical record.  Celtic was of course the first British club to become European Champions and have a proud European pedigree which includes reaching the last 16 of the Champions League on 3 occasions in recent years. Celtic have held their own with English sides they have met in Europe over the years having won 7 and drawn 6 of their 20 competitive ties. Some of their victories over the likes of Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers have irked some English commentators as many of them share the conceit that Scottish clubs simply shouldn’t be beating English clubs. When watching the footage of Celtic’s 2-0 win at Liverpool in 2003, you can still hear the pain and disappointment in the commentator’s voice as Hartson fired home the clinching goal.

Of course when you point out Celtic’s European record to critics of Scottish football they tend to shift focus onto the comparative strengths of the EPL and SPFL. It’s simply unfair to compare a league bloated with Sky’s billions and staffed by mercenaries from all over the world. A recent survey suggested 65% of EPL players are foreigners. For all its blood and thunder, all its clannish ways and petty hatreds, I like Scottish football. It’s full of honest endeavour and some of the most knowledgeable and passionate fans in the world. There is a sterile quality to many English games which leaves me disinterested and reaching for the off switch.

So on Sunday I’ll be enjoying the party and celebrating my team’s success. Of course I’d love Scottish football to be more competitive as this would in turn drive up standards. I’d also like our clubs to be more successful in Europe but I’ll defend our game against those who run it down based on nothing more than unthinking prejudice. Folk who have never attended a Scottish game trot out tired old clichés which demonstrate nothing but their ignorance.

Football supporters in the small countries of Europe have watched as the big leagues demand a bigger and bigger cut of the financial cake. It is up to UEFA to continue to promote and support football all over Europe and not just bow to the mega rich leagues. Like it or not we are never returning to the more equal days of 1967 when a team like Celtic could conquer Europe. We accept that the financial gulf between teams like Celtic and the mega rich elite European clubs is unbridgeable but equally money doesn’t win games. It’s eleven players against eleven and as clubs such as Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid have found at Celtic Park, you write off Celtic at your peril.

Football isn’t just about money; it’s about that passion for your club, that comradeship with your fellow fans and that journey which mirrors life with all its triumphs and disasters. Fans in Europe’s smaller leagues love their clubs with as much passion as any of those in the big five leagues. That passion still makes little miracles happen now and the as Barcelona found when they came to Celtic Park in 2012. The late Tito Villanova said at the time…

The stadium was spectacular. I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds but I have never seen anything like it.’

Celtic know they are up against it in Europe but are currently building an exciting young side which promises to give the big boys a fight. When that incredible support gets behind the team on those big games under the lights it can be an awesome spectacle. Paul Haywad, writing in the Telegraph after Celtic beat Barcelona in 2012 summed up the potent combination which Celtic and their supporters bring to European games at Celtic Park when he said…

‘Somewhere between madness and love, this fanaticism did for Barcelona on a night when the Celtic team and their disciples were indivisible. Money can’t buy you that.

So tomorrow I’ll delight in our title celebrations. We have much to be proud of and much to look forward to. I long ago stopped caring about the opinions of others on Celtic or Scottish Football. If they bring their over hyped sides to Celtic Park they’ll soon learn that there’s abundant life outside the big leagues and supporters who put their's to shame.

Enjoy tomorrow. These are great days to be Celtic supporters.