I used to see big John at the football every week. He loved the Hoops as much as any of us and seldom missed a game. In the old Stadium he’d position himself on that shoulder of terracing which once connected the Celtic end to the Jungle. In sunshine or rain he’d be there a good 20 minutes before kick-off to ensure he got his regular standing spot and he’d witnessed some classic encounters over the years. He was usually in the company of his older brother Mick and those with a keen eye would spot the seemingly strange mix of chatter and hand signals the brothers used. Big John was born deaf and his brother had learned British sign language with him as they grew up in the east end. Mick was in some ways his interpreter and the two were usually inseparable. As a boy Mick had been fiercely protective of his younger brother and had got into a few fights at school or in the street when someone insulted John intentionally or otherwise. On one occasion I recall one of our legendary ‘Ten-Twenty-wanner’ Sunday football games descending into a brawl after someone called John a ‘Dummy.’ He hadn’t heard his team mate call for a pass and the frustrated player, not knowing he was deaf, has shouted at him. Mick, as always, leapt to his brother’s defence and John looked on confused as angry words led to Mick swinging a right hook. John glanced at me, unsure of what his brother was fighting about. We parted the warring parties and the name caller shook Mick’s hand assuring him he didn’t know his brother was deaf. It was quickly forgotten as the game raged on but such incidents were not untypical of Mick in those days. Although like many working class Glasgow boys he wouldn’t verbalise his feelings much, his love for his brother was clear for all to see.
John and Mick lived with their Mum on the Gallowgate in a now long gone tenement. I remember visiting their home one chilly night in December and as the door was opened by Mick, I could hear the unmistakable sound of Glen Daly singing the Celtic Song drifting from the house. I entered the living room and was met by the strange sight of John sitting in front of the speakers of the family stereo, the palms of his hands held less than an inch from them. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that he didn’t notice I was there. Mick smiled, ‘He likes doing that, he can feel the vibrations.’ Mick explained that he often played a game with john where they’d lay out nine or ten singles with pictures of the band or artist on the front. Mick would then play one without John seeing which one it was and John, hands in front of the speakers, would identify the song from the vibrations and point to the correct artist. He was usually right.
I saw the two brothers in the usual spot the night Celtic destroyed Sporting Lisbon 5-0. As the stadium roared out the songs of victory I glanced at big John, who stood smiling, delighted at his team’s excellent victory. I wondered what his world was like. Here he was standing among thousands of singing Celtic fans and hearing no sound whatsoever. It’s difficult for us blessed with functioning senses to imagine what it would be like to be without one of them. What was clear though was that John was getting as much pleasure out of Celtic’s victory as any of us.
I’d bump into John and Mick now and then as the years passed. I attended their mum’s funeral at the lovely old St Alphonsus’ church on the London Road by the Barras. I also saw them at the 1995 cup final against Airdrie and again at the new stadium in the Tommy Burns era when we enjoyed some superb football without seeing much tangible success for it all. In 2001 when Martin O’Neil’s team were driving towards the treble, I bumped into the two brothers in a pub near Tannadice. Mick told me that John was being fitted with a cochlear implant and my blank look convinced him to explain further. ‘Basically, they fit one behind your ear during surgery. It has an external sound processor which takes in sound and converts it into signals. The signal is sent along a tiny wire which has electrodes on it and this stimulates the auditory nerve to send signals to the brain which decodes them.’ I looked at him, ‘So John will hear?’ Mick smiled, ‘It’s not quite that simple as that, the implant creates a sense of sound which isn’t like the average hearing person’s sense of it but he will be able to hear some things and get a sense of speech when folk talk to him. He might even say some words himself, they have all sorts of therapy planned to help him after the operation.’ We chatted about the upcoming operation and John signed that he was looking forward to it. Not everyone who is deaf chooses to have the implant but John was keen to go ahead. As we parted and headed for our seats at Tannadice I wished the brothers well.
I didn’t see them again for the best part of two years. It was on that famous night when we played Liverpool at Celtic Park on the road to Seville when our paths next crossed. As Gerry Marsden stood in the centre of the field signing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with 60,000 Celtic and Liverpool supporters as his backing singers, I saw John. He was standing on the stairway near the front of the North stand facing the crowd. I made my way down from my seat to say hello to him but stopped short when I saw his face. He was turning his head slightly to the right as if listening to the massed Celtic choir belting out their anthem. He was also scanning the lips of some of the singing fans as he listened although this was no surprise as he’d long been a lip reader, but that night was different. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see John’s brother, Mick. ‘He at it again?’ he smiled shaking my hand. Mick explained through the noise that John’s implant had been completed the year before and that it had given him some sense of sound. He had also begun intensive therapy to help him articulate some words for the first time. Mick also said with that understated little smile of his that John would occasionally go to the front of the stand for a few minutes and just ‘listen’ to the singing at Celtic games. ‘Imagine hearing Walk on or the Grand Old Team for the first time?’ he smiled.
As Gerry Marsden and the crowd reached a crescendo, I approached John with a smile and a handshake. He pulled me close and pointing to his ear said the first word I’d ever heard him say. It was by no means perfect and greatly slurred but it was unmistakable, ’Listen!’ he said. I looked at him with a smile and nodded, ‘I know, John, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ I mouthed slowly enough for him to lip read. He nodded and turned back to looking at the crowd, his eyes moist with tears.