Saturday, 30 August 2014

Get it on

Get it On

A blue haze of cigarette smoke hung above the heads of the noisy partygoers like a noxious fog. The crowded room had all the ingredients to make a memorable new year’s gathering except for one thing; music. That’s where Tommy Bryce fitted in. Tommy was one of the few teenagers in the Gorbals who owned a portable record player and a considerable collection of singles. As he entered the first floor flat laden with tell-tale carrier bags, a cheer went up. He quickly found a spot on a table in the corner of the room and opened up his little yellow case like a magician at a children’s party. Within a minute the room reverberated to T Rex booming out ‘Jeepstar’ and the young people gathered in the flat began to dance. Tommy watched the magical effect music had on those who had drank a little before he stacked another six singles up on the machine. They would each fall in turn and fill the room with music without him having to attend to it. He then headed through the bustle and noise of the busy living room towards the kitchen. It was slightly less crowded and he noticed the seemingly endless rows of beer cans and bottles which lined every available surface. ‘Aw right Tommy boy? Cheers fur bringing yer wee machine o’er, the record player on oor radiogram’s knackered,’ grinned the ever cheerful Mick Barry, a friend of Tommy’s since primary school. ‘Nae bother, Mick,’ Tommy replied, ‘Glad ye managed tae haud this wee shindig. Been a real lack of good parties this year.’ Mick nodded ‘Ye can thank my old man for takin’ my maw tae see her clan in Letterkenny.’ He handed Tommy a can of lager which had an image of a bikini clad model on it who looked a little out of place in a chilly Glasgow January. ‘No way she’d allow a party like this,’ Tommy nodded, ’It’s gonny be a good night Mick, I see yon burd fae the Calton is in and she’s brought a pal.’ Tony nodded knowingly, ‘Let them get a bit more drunk and we’ll move in later. You get a few slow songs on that machine of yours and we’re oan tae a winch at the very least. Just don’t play ‘Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep’ and we’ll be fine!’’ In the other room the music changed and a muted cheer went up as T Rex went into action again with their big hit from the previous summer ‘Get it on.’ Tommy and Mick headed into the living room and found the room pulsating to the beat and their friends lost in music and dancing…

‘Well you're dirty and sweet
Clad in black, don't look back and I love you
You're dirty and sweet, oh yeah
Well you're slim and you're weak
You've got the teeth of the hydra upon you
You're dirty sweet and you're my girl

Get it on, bang a gong, get it on
Get it on, bang a gong, get it on’

The two friends joined the crush of dancing teenagers in the living room of the tenement flat and began to dance with the rest. Most of the 50 or so young people in the room knew each other from school or the local area and the vibe was good. This had the makings of a party they’d all remember for a good while and that was important to Mick. No one wanted remembered as the host of a crap party. The night played out in an enjoyable and predictable fashion with the usual coyness of the young men and women melting away as alcohol worked its magic. Tommy knew when it was time to switch the music to a slower beat and the love songs had the desired effect. Those still on the floor dancing used it as a pretext to hold each other close. Others made bold by the drink paired off into kissing couples and Mick quietly nudged Tommy towards the girl from the Calton who sat gabbing to her pal in between sips of her vodka. The night, it seemed, had endless possibilities, especially if you owned a portable record player.

Tommy Bryce awoke with a searing headache and thirst which seemed to have swollen his lips. He glanced around the room, his alcohol soaked brain only slowly recollecting the events of the night before. He knew he was in Mick Barry’s house and even in the half light of a Glasgow winter’s morning, he could see the pictures of hoop shirted Celtic players around the bedroom walls. Mick loved the tic alright. As he gathered his thoughts he sensed someone was behind him in the bed. ‘Pound to a penny it’s Mick,’ he mumbled to himself as he slowly edged around to look. It was in fact the girl from the Calton’s friend and even though he had no recollection of how they had got here, what they had done and even her name, his headache faded a little. He decided to test the water and looped a lazy arm over her and snuggled in close. They were both fully clothed under the blankets which suggested the alcohol had made them sleepy rather than amorous the night before. He could feel her breath on his face as his hand slid down the contours of her waist. She sighed contentedly and surprised him by pulling him closer and kissing him. Just as things were heating up, Mick burst into the room, ‘Tommy, ye need tae get up mate. It’s the old firm game the day. Mon, move yer arse!’ The cold air enveloped him as he reluctantly got up from the warmth of the bed. The girl from the Calton’s pal smiled at him and shrugged, ‘Aw well if fitbaw is mer important tae ye?’  

The living room looked as if a bomb had gone off in it as Tommy entered. Beer cans, glasses, bottles and cigarette ash littered the carpet. Here and there sleeping figures snored oblivious to the world. Mick handed Tommy a roll on black pudding and a can of beer, ‘Get that doon ye and we’ll head. These early kick offs ur a pain in the arse.’ Tommy nodded and took a long sip of the cold beer, ‘Aye, ye’d think we were drinking too much or something.’ As Mick cleared the worst of the debris into large black bags marked ‘Glasgow Cleansing Dept’ Tommy rescued his record player and singles and stowed them in the kitchen larder. Mick grunted, ‘Auntie May’s coming in tae help clean up later so it should be ship shape when we get hame fae the game, let’s go.’ The two friends headed out into the January chill leaving a mountain of tidying and cleaning to the indefatigable Auntie May.

More beer in the Blarney Stone Bar had Tommy’s head swimming a little but he was composed enough to join in each rousing chorus the packed pub could offer. He watched Mick punching the air, eyes closed as an old favourite, altered somewhat by the Celtic faithful, was belted out…

‘Hail Glorious Saint Patrick, Dear Saint of our isle

On us and our children bestow a sweet smile

And now thou art high in the mansions above

On Erin’s green valley’s look down in thy love

In the war against Rangers in the fight for the cup

When Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again

On Erin’s green valley’s look down in they love’

As was the custom, rounds were still being bought right up to the minute people set off for the waiting supporters’ bus which was to transport them the short distance to Celtic Park. As the bus set of the windows were thumped and feet stamped in unison with the bellicose singing which it seemed everyone joined in.  Mick and Tommy sat together near the back of the bus and let the atmosphere sweep over them. ‘God I love these games,’ Mick said, ‘Nothin beats doin the Huns.’ Tommy nodded, ‘Not won both league games against them since 1912. Hope we put that right today.’ Mick shook his head, ‘That right? Sixty years since we gubbed them in both League games?’ Before Tommy could respond the bus reverberated with a familiar song…

Oh Hampden Park was crowded
The fans began to roar
The Rangers fans were singing
Of the sash their father wore.
But very soon
The changed their tune
When the Celtic plan was set,
For Lennox crossed to Billy McNeill
And the ball was in the net!

Putting on the agony
Putting on the style
One, two, three, four lovely goals
Scoring all the while.
There's nothing in this whole wide world
That makes you want to smile
Like watching Glasgow Celtic
Putting on the style’

The Bus parked as it always did in Society Street and they flowed out and merged with the raucous green river flowing towards the stadium. The noisy queues at the turnstiles in Janefield Street swayed and sang. There was an air of excitement and expectation and as Tommy and Mick inched closer to the turnstile they joined in with a chorus of…‘A lorry load of volunteers approached the border town…’ Tommy loved it, the songs, the passion, the ‘click, click’ of the turnstiles as the fans piled into Celtic Park. There was an air of confidence among the Celtic support. Hadn’t they already beaten Rangers 3 times this season? Tommy and Mick squeezed into the Jungle near the Celtic end just as the teams appeared. A huge roar went up around the stadium and from deep in the Jungle a low, visceral chant started… ‘Hail, Hail the Celts are here…’ It spread around three quarters of Celtic Park until it boomed in the chill winter air… ‘We don’t care what the animals say!’ The players took their positions for kick off and Mick noticed that all 22 were wearing black armbands in respect of the disaster at Ibrox a year before. The game got underway as the swaying crowd on the terraces shouted and sang to encourage their players. Celtic were soon on the attack with Deans, Hood and young Dalglish all forcing saves from McCloy in the Rangers goal. In a frustrating period for the home team, they seemed incapable of turning their obvious superiority into goals. Johnstone bore the brunt of some crude tackling from the Rangers rear guard who gave away free kick after free kick as Celtic probed for an opening. Then in 35 minutes Hood lined up another free kick wide on the Rangers left. McNeil headed into the box and as Hood flighted the ball towards him, the Rangers defence instinctively followed the ball. McNeil however missed, as did everyone else, and it dropped towards the back post where the smallest player on the field, Jimmy Johnstone headed it into the empty net. Celtic Park exploded into a crescendo of noise as three quarters of the crowd roared in unison. Mick and Tommy in the Jungle grabbed each other and hugging and screaming! ‘Yaaaas the Celtic! Come on Bhoys finish the job.’ The game restarted amid a tumultuous racket against which the rest of the first half was played out. The masses crowding the Celtic end and jungle bounced in unison as they belted out…‘We shall not, we shall not be moved, not by the Hibs the Hearts or the Raaaa-aangers, we shall not be moved.’

The second half saw Celtic content to draw Rangers forward and hit them with lightning breaks. Hood and Johnstone were foiled by McCloy but as the clock ticked down, it seemed as if Celtic had done enough. Tommy, however was a natural worrier and said to Mick, ‘Wan’s never enough, we need another goal.’ No sooner were the words out of his mouth when a through ball from Rangers’ Mathieson split the Celtic defence and found Colin Stein and Willie Johnstone racing towards Connaghan. Stein reached the ball first and his snap shot was parried by the keeper and rolled agonisingly over the line and into the net. The Rangers fans now roared as it seemed the late goal would secure them a fortunate draw. The Celtic support was momentarily quiet, taking in the unjust nature of football. They had been so much on top and now with just a few minutes left it was 1-1. From the Rangers end came a cry of… ‘It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne…’ This was met by a chorus of boos and whistles from the Celtic fans. From the back of the Celtic end a lone voice called out a single word which was taken up in turn by thousands of voices… ‘Cel-tic….Ce-ltic…..Cel-tic…Celtic!’ The players in those famous green and white hooped shirts were stunned by the late equaliser and threw themselves at the Rangers defence seeking one last chance to win it. Then, with the allotted 90 minutes up McNeil picked the ball up thirty five yards from the Rangers goal and glanced quickly ahead of him. Tommy watched as a Celtic player raced towards the back post just as McNeil flighted the ball into the box. The horrified Rangers defence reacted too late as Jim Brogan, the Celtic full back, dived and connected with the ball. Mick watched open mouthed as it exploded into the net behind McCloy. Celtic Park exploded! ‘Gooooaaallll!  Yaaassss!’ roared Tommy as he and Mick grabbed anyone nearby and hugged them. ‘We’ve done!’ yelled Mick, ‘We’ve only fuckin gone and done it!’ Brogan was buried under a pile of delighted team mates as the massed ranks of Celtic fans around three sides of the pitch went wild. The final whistle sounded and it was over. The never say die attitude of Celtic had seen another victory snatched at the death. The team was cheered off the field by the exultant supporters as a stunned silence enveloped the fast emptying away end.

As Tommy and Mick marched along the crowded Janefield Street in great spirits the singing continued… ‘We don’t need your Colin Stein, Eusebio or Alan Gilzean, We’ve got someone twice as good- we’ve got Harry Hood!’ The songs flowed on the bus back to the Gorbals as did the beer. This new year was turning out to be a good one. Tommy grinned at Mick, ‘That was fuckin great!’ Mick laughed, ‘I love sickening them like that, last fuckin minute and Jim Brogan tae!’ As the bus windows were thumped again and the ‘Grand Old Team’ was belted out, Mick turned to his friend, ‘By the way, I got that Calton burd’s phone number, you fancy a wee double date? She’s bringing her pal again.’ Tommy grinned thinking there was unfinished business there, ‘Sounds like a plan mate, sounds like a plan.’ That was for later though for the moment they were just happy to be among the Celtic family enjoying another famous victory. It was indeed, a grand old team.


Monday, 18 August 2014

The Dark Place

Young Gordon McLaughlin could feel the cold Glasgow rain seep beneath his goalkeeper’s top but was too engrossed in the game to take much notice. He watched the play build in the midfield area, his concentration total. At 12 years of age he was football daft and wanted to be just like his hero Artur Boruc.  His two great passions in life were football and drawing. He was developing very well in both areas and typically most of his sketches were of footballers. As the play in front of him switched to the left he focused on the ball as his team’s manager, who also happened to be his old man, had taught him. The skilful little winger clad in the red shirt of the team from Possilpark skinned the full back and headed for the goal but he knocked the ball just a little too far ahead. Gordon was on it in an instant and throwing himself on the slippery ball, smothered it into his mud splattered jersey. The winger sportingly jumped over him to avoid a collision and even mumbled ‘good save, keeper’ as he trotted back up-field. The game was completed in a near gale and both sets of players were thankful to hear the final whistle. Gordon grinned as he trotted off, nothing pleased him more than a clean sheet and the Glen Star Boys Club winning.

After the players were changed Gordon’s Dad loaded them into the minibus and dropped each one in turn at their homes till only he and Gordon were left in the bus. Gordon jumped into the front seat and strapped himself in as his Dad headed for home. ‘You played well today son, just watch the skid of the ball on wet days. Clearing your lines is more important than finding a man with the ball.’ Gordon listened carefully as his old man had played in goals in the rough world of Junior football and but for an unfortunate leg break might have gone higher in the game. ‘ That wee winger was decent enough to jump over you near the end but some won’t so use your legs and arms to protect yourself and never dive head first at a player rushing towards you. Sometimes losing a goal isn’t as bad as losing your teeth’ Gordon nodded, ‘Got ye Da, noo are we going tae see the Celts?’ His Dad smiled, ‘Jesus, football all morning and then more in the afternoon, dae ye never get sick of it?’ Gordon laughed, ‘Naw and neither dae you, be honest.

Two hours later they were in their usual seats in the Jock Stein stand at Celtic Park to see Celtic take on Aberdeen.  A victory would put them top of the league as Rangers weren’t playing until the Sunday. The title was in the balance in that spring of 2008 as Celtic had mounted an unlikely late charge and they were putting real pressure on a Rangers side who were beginning to crack. With just a few games remaining, it was clear that Celtic needed to win every one to stand a chance of being champions. All of this was secondary to young Gordon as he watched his hero, Artur Boruc, carefully. He studied his positioning, his diving technique and how he kicked the ball clear. After 4 minutes a rasping shot from Severin flashed past Boruc and struck both posts before being cleared. ‘Jesus,’ winced Gordon’s dad, ‘That was close.’ That rare Aberdeen attack was the precursor to serious Celtic pressure on their goal which seemed to live a charmed life. The game developed into a battle of attrition with Donati, Nakamura and McGeady probing the Aberdeen defence and Samaras and McDonald chasing everything.  Eventually Aberdeen cracked and just after half time the 55,000 crowd let out a huge roar as Samaras nodded home Barry Robson’s free kick. Gordon’s Dad hugged him, ‘Yeeesss! We’re gonny win this league wee man I can feel it in my bones.’ The game ended in a 1-0 win and Celtic went top of the league for the first time in months. On the drive home Gordon and his Dad talked about the upcoming cup semi-final the under 13s were due to play. ‘It’s gonny be tough son, teams fae Drumchapel are big, strong and usually a bit mean. We’ll get the boys in for training on Wednesday and talk about it then.’ Gordon nodded, strangely he liked games against good teams as he was busier in goals and got a chance to show what he could do.

The following week dragged past but eventually Saturday morning arrived and the team mini bus was speeding its way towards Drumchapel for the game. The pitch was pot holed and muddy and during the warm up Gordon noted every bump and rut in the penalty box. Some of the opposition looked older than the under 13 limit but then few people bothered checking ages. The game began in bright April sunshine and Gordon was quickly brought into action. He touched a low drive around the post and as the ball was swung in from the resulting corner, a forearm clattered into the side of his head. He winced in pain as the whistle blew and the ref warned the player about his flailing arms. He feigned innocence but Gordon figured it was going to be one of those games. Midway through the first half a ball was lobbed over the defence and a suspiciously offside looking forward raced towards Gordon’s goal. It was the same guy who had clattered him at the corner. Gordon raced towards him and, anticipating that the right footer would attempt to dribble him on that side, dived for the ball. What happened next seemed to occur in slow motion. Gordon saw his hands grasp the ball but simultaneously the forward’s knee struck him forcefully on the cheekbone. As he instinctively pulled the ball under his body and spun away from the other player, the light seemed to get dimmer and his eyes closed as a deep darkness enveloped him…

Gordon could hear his own breathing and the echoes of his father’s voice somewhere in the distance but couldn’t open his eyes. Somewhere a machine beeped regularly and then all was still. After what seemed a long time he heard a gentle voice speaking to him. ‘Gordon, will ye wake up for me?’ Gordon tried to open his eyes but found the effort too difficult. It was easier to sink into the darkness. ‘Gordon, I ken it’s hard but try for me, come on.’ Again he tried to open his eyes and this time he could briefly make out the blurry outline of someone by his bed. He knew instinctively this wasn’t his home. He had to be in hospital but why? He searched his memory but it was as if great iron doors had closed sealing it off. ‘Gordon, look at me son.’ He refocused on the voice which sounded as if the Doctor or whoever it was hailed from Edinburgh or perhaps the east coast. Gordon focussed on his eyelids but they refused to obey him and he slipped again into the all-encompassing blackness.

After what could have been an hour or a week he resurfaced again and as before the man’s voice was speaking to him, drawing him up. ‘Gordon, look at me, open your eyes.’ Gordon slowly tried to open his eyes and after what seemed a gargantuan effort a crack of light flooded through his eyelids. ‘Good lad, now come on, more!’ He opened them fully and saw the man standing over his bed smiling. He was young for a Doctor and didn’t wear a white coat as Gordon expected. Instead he sported a green jumper with a sort of low polar neck. He smiled at Gordon, ‘There I knew ye could do it.’ Gordon tried to speak but no words would come. He raised his right arm slightly and the man took his hand. ‘You rest now, you’ve done well. I’ll be back soon.’ Gordon closed his eyes and slept deeply. He had no idea the number of times the man coaxed him to consciousness but it was many over the succeeding days. Always the same kind voice, always the effort exhausted Gordon who just wanted to sleep. The young man was kind but insistent and each visit Gordon became a little more focused.

Gordon opened his eyes as weak April sunshine streamed into his room. It was the first time he had done so without the gentle voice of the young man to rouse him from his slumber. A nurse with a kindly face was looking at him.  Her eyebrows rose and she sped from the room, ‘Doctor Bailey, I think he’s conscious!’ Soon a crowd of people were fussing around him and the many tubes which seemingly protruded from him. The Doctor, an older man with a neat grey beard shone a light into his eyes before asking, ‘Can you hear me, Gordon?’ Gordon tried to speak but only a low gasp came from him. He nodded his head almost imperceptibly. ‘Good lad,’ the Doctor said to himself, ‘Looks like he’s joining the world again.’ As the Doctor checked a machine to his right the younger man appeared at the foot of the bed. ‘Well done, Gordon, you’re doing fine. Keep focussing and let your mind think about familiar things. Your memories will return and don’t you dare give up.’ The man was right because as each hour passed he could picture different aspects of his life, his father, his mum and sister’s faces all appeared in his mind. They came to visit him that night and as his mother fussed over him he caught his father’s eye and they connected again. He could see the tears of love both his parents were shedding for him and was determined to get well for them. Although he couldn’t yet respond to their questions he could now at least gently squeeze their hands.

At night as the hospital quietened and the nurses moved here and there in the half light, Gordon lay awake on his bed. The young man usually came in at that time and Gordon assumed he was working the late shift. The man quietly told Gordon how the stages of his recovery would pan out and as the days passed he was proven to be correct. He emphasised the need for determination and a refusal give in. Gordon spoke again three days after regaining consciousness and could now converse with the hospital staff in short sentences. His parents were of course delighted with his progress and on a bright May morning, the nurses helped him to sit up in his bed so that when they walked in the door they would see him waiting for them. His Father entered first and Gordon could see him fighting back the tears, ‘Son, you’ve come back to us. I’ve prayed so hard for this.’ His mother simply held his hand and quietly sobbed. Gordon spoke to them in a quiet voice, ‘You always taught me to be a fighter Dad.’

After two more weeks of progress, tests and various scans Gordon was allowed to leave the intensive care ward for a small room off the general ward. He knew there was a lot of physiotherapy and other work ahead but he was ready for that. His father had brought him his drawing kit and he would fill the long hours of the hospital day by sketching scenes from the daily life on the Ward. Sometimes he would become grumpy as his old skills returned more slowly than he liked but he persevered and each day saw an improvement. In the small room off the ward he lay on his bed watching Celtic play Dundee United at Tanadice in a game which would decide the championship. The ward was quiet and the lights dimmed as Gordon watched the ebb and flow of the game. Shortly after the only goal of the game had been scored by Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, the door of his room opened and the young man entered. ‘You’re watching the match I see, how is it going?’ Gordon managed to smile, Celtic are winning and it looks like they’ll be champions again.’ The young man nodded with a smile on his face, ‘Celtic is my team too, you see what can happen when you never give up? I’m proud of you too Gordon, you fought so hard to escape the darkness, not everyone succeeds.’ They watched the game draw to its conclusion and the Celtic players receive the cup in front of the rapturous Celtic support before Gordon settled to a contented sleep. The last thing he heard was the man’s voice say quietly, ‘Goodbye Gordon, remember, you never give up.’

A few days later as Gordon prepared to leave hospital for home, he sat with his father writing out a few thank you cards for the hospital staff. His father looked at one of his sketches, ‘That the nurse with the blonde hair? Pretty good son.’ Gordon nodded and handed him another. It showed the older Doctor with the neat grey beard. Again his father smiled, ‘You should give him this one, its brilliant.’ As if on cue the elderly Doctor entered to say his farewells and tidy up the last of the paperwork. ‘We’re delighted with your son’s progress Mr McLaughlin, it was touch and go at the start but the boy is a fighter.’ Gordon passed him a thank you card and drawing and the Doctor smiled, ‘Goodness, you have a budding artist on your hands too; I’ll treasure this always, thank you.’ Gordon then asked about the younger Doctor, ‘Can he pop in to say goodbye? He helped me a lot.’ The older man looked confused, ‘I’ve been the only Doctor attending you Gordon. Perhaps you’ve mistaken a porter for a Doctor?’ Gordon looked confused, ‘No, he came almost every night, talked me through things. He was a great help.’ The older man nodded patiently, ‘Sometimes with head injuries we confuse dreams and reality Gordon, and you’ve had a very serious head injury…’ Gordon didn’t respond as he felt a little unsure about the whole situation. He gathered his drawings together and made ready to go home. He remained certain that the man he spoke too, who helped him escape the darkness, wasn’t a figment of his imagination.

As his father drove carefully out of the huge Southern General complex he turned briefly to his son, ‘You’re quiet son, were you annoyed about what the Doctor said about getting confused?’ Gordon replied quietly, ‘But the man was real, he did come and see me Da, he… he woke me up the first time, the time I was in the real dark place. He got me to open my eyes. I wanted to stay there but he wouldn’t let me.’ His father said nothing. Gordon went on, ‘look I drew him...’  Gordon’s father carefully guided the car to the side of the road and pulled on the hand brake. He turned to face his son and sighed a little, saying, ‘Gordon, head knocks can really cause problems,’ Gordon interrupted his father, ‘Will ye just look at the drawing Da? How could I draw him if he wasn’t real?’ Charlie McLaughlin took the sheet of paper from his son and looked at the image he had drawn, his breathing became shallower and his eyes widened…..

‘Jesus’ he mumbled.

Is this they guy you say came to see you?’

Gordon didn’t reply, sensing something was amiss.

Gordon, is it?’

Gordon replied, ‘Aye Da, it is.’


‘This is…’ his father’s voice trailed off to a whisper…

 This is John Thomson...’




Saturday, 16 August 2014

Tommy, Fergus and the Celtic renaissance
Nobody among the great mass of Celtic supporters has more affection for the late, great Tommy Burns than I do. On the few occasions I met him he lived up to his reputation as a decent, humble human being who took time to talk to the ordinary fans and share a smile with them. I have witnessed close hand his ability to make those a little shy about chatting to a Celtic star, relax and feel that he was really interested in them and their stories. He was and remains the epitome of Celtic FC and what the club is about. As a player he gave 100% for the Hoops and never shirked a tackle. The effort you saw in Old Firm games or Cup Finals was matched against smaller clubs. He often said he was just a fan who got lucky but the truth is that Celtic and the huge legion of fans who follow the club got lucky when TB walked in the door as a skinny teenager. It is a truism to say that I never heard anyone say a bad word about Tommy. He was simply a good man and a great Celt.
His managerial career at Celtic, which began on July 12th 1994, coincided with Fergus McCann’s restructuring of the club. McCann had inherited a dilapidated stadium which, post Hillsborough, required rebuilding. The squad left behind by Lou Macari was full of honest professionals but in truth looked unlikely to stop the march of Murray’s Rangers who spent huge sums on players and perhaps laid the foundations in those years for their later collapse and liquidation. With reconstruction work taking place at Celtic Park, Burns first season would see all home times played at Hampden. Queen’s Park charged almost a million pounds for the use of their stadium that season and McCann never forgot their exploitation of Celtic’s predicament. Celtic started the season reasonably well and beat Rangers 2-0 at Ibrox in an opening spell when they were undefeated until a narrow defeat at Tyncastle in mid-October. However the habit of drawing games they had in the bag was allowing Rangers to power clear at the top of the league especially as this was the season 3 points for a win was introduced. As the leaves fell that autumn so too did Celtic’s form. They drew an astonishing 18 SPL games and finished a dismal fourth in the table.  The support watched the side lose the League Cup final to Raith Rovers after another winning position was squandered. The pain on McStay’s face after he missed the crucial penalty was matched by that of his manager. These two great Celts felt it as the fans felt it. Only the Scottish cup offered a chance of ending a six year trophy drought. St Mirren, Meadowbank, Kilmarnock and Hibs were defeated in the cup and Celtic then faced Airdrie at Hampden on a nervous day in May 1995. A headed goal from new signing Pierre Van Hooijdonk ended the drought and sparked celebrations which were, in truth, laced with a huge dose of relief.
Burns knew the side needed rebuilding and in season 1995-96 Van Hooijdonk was joined by Andreas Thom, Jackie McNamara and Jorge Cadete. The team began to play some excellent attacking football but defensive naivety saw more points shed and the teams seeming inferiority complex when it came to playing Rangers saw them fail to win any of the six meetings with the Ibrox club that season. In some of those games we watched Celtic dominate and miss good chances before the inevitable sucker punch arrived. Burns joked at the time that on his gravestone they should carve ‘Andy Goram broke my heart’ but the fault lay as much with Celtic’s forwards as Goram’s skills. As Rangers completed 8 titles in a row there were shrill calls for McCann to invest heavily in the team to preserve Stein’s record of 9 successive titles. Fergus is often accused of being miserly with the money in Tommy Burn’s time as manager but the truth is that he stuck to his five year plan to rebuild Celtic Park and the playing side was only one of his concerns. He refused to take the club into the sort of debt which eventually killed Rangers and history has proved this to be wise. McCann was a hard headed businessman who often clashed with Burns who wanted to create a Celtic side in the best traditions of exciting, attacking Celtic play. Their relationship could be stormy and the following season would bring things to a head.
1996-97 season saw the arrival of Alan Stubbs and Paolo Di Canio at Celtic Park. One was a stout, dependable centre half while the other a mercurial and passionate player with skill and flair of the kind Celtic fans love. The season was a tense and often bad tempered affair. All of Scottish football seemed to be asking the same question; Can Celtic stop Rangers making it 9 in a row? Despite the Ibrox club shedding more points than in previous years they maintained their hoodoo over Celtic in the SPL winning the first 3 encounters. Everything would come down to the run in and Celtic hopes were raised when the beat Rangers 2-0 in the Scottish Cup at Celtic Park that March. Just 10 days later they met Rangers again at Celtic Park in a brutal SPL game in which Celtic again dominated but were drawn into snarling confrontations with overly physical Rangers players. The referee seemed to lose control on occasions and only more sensible players stopped the game degenerating into a brawl. Rangers scored the only goal amid the mayhem and went on to seal the title. For Celtic, the Scottish cup offered a shot at redemption. A semi final replay defeat to Falkirk at Ibrox was a bitter pill to swallow for the support in a season which promised so much and delivered so little. Tommy Burns had produced a Celtic side which played some of the best attacking football in years but in Rangers they found a pragmatic opponent who would time and time again utilise counter attacking tactics which would more often than not mug Celtic for the points.
Such was the promise of Burns’ team and the genuine affection he was held in by the support, it seemed harsh of Fergus McCann to fire him following that 1996-97 season. Even today some talk of Burns being ‘knifed in the back’ or ‘starved of funds to buy players’ but the truth is as always more complicated.  McCann had a club to rebuild and a business plan to follow, indeed the Celtic Park we see today remains his legacy. Tommy Burns did bring many players of decent pedigree to Celtic but the genius of Di Canio, Cadete or Van Hooijdonk was complicated by their personalities. Their demands for more money or transfers were met by McCann’s blunt assertion that they signed a contract and should stick to it. The disruptive attitude of Tommy’s top stars was as much to blame for his eventual dismissal as McCann’s supposed parsimony. The press of course stirred things up by portraying McCann as a dictator or a figure of fun. He dismissed them as the irrelevance they were but some among the support did not.
It is a measure of how much Tommy Burns was loved by the Celtic support that his dismissal still rankles today and few fail to see the irony that Jansen’s side who stopped the ‘Ten’ actually did so with fewer points and goals than Burns attained the season before. However, in the harsh world of professional football it is winning which assures managers keep their jobs. Fergus McCann will never be loved by some in the way that Tommy Burns was but he’d accept that. He was more abrasive and hard headed than Tommy but in his own way he was very important to the renaissance of Celtic Football Club. We can only guess where the club would have been had the old Board retained control in 1994.
As for Tommy, his place in our hearts in unequalled because he loved Celtic as much as we all did. Perhaps he loved the club too much to play the sort of pragmatic and defensive football other clubs adopted at times. He wanted the Celtic style of old and to play romantic, entertaining football , football as it was meant to be played. He brought Celtic from a very dark place and gave us the hope that we were finally close to returning to the top of Scottish football again. We will never forget or lose our affection for this quintessential Celtic man. God bless you Tommy and thank you.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

A Mess of their own making

Celtic’s reprieve from UEFA following Legia Warsaw’s playing of a suspended player was an unexpected windfall for the Club. While most of us were delighted to be given a second chance we scarcely deserved on footballing merit, the Polish club were understandably furious. In an open letter to Celtic on their official website they stated…

Warsaw, 10 August 2014.

Celtic FC is a legend in European football - the club with an incredible tradition, which since 1888 co-creates the story of the most beautiful game in the world. At the basis of this legend are not only amazing sporting achievements, but also the determination and commitment to values ​​such as honesty and honor. Subsequent generations of wonderful, dedicated fans of "The Bhoys" support your club all over the world. It all makes Celtic FC is in many respects a model for us to follow. Legia Warsaw is also a club with strong character and a heart to fight. Our history is not as long and rich in successes, but we can proudly look both into the past and in the future. Almost 100 years of our complicated history, inextricably connected with the difficult history of Poland and Warsaw, in fact proves one thing - never surrender and there is no more important value to us than the value of honor.

Double victory over Celtic FC to qualify for this year's Champions League, was fought hard but honestly with the ball,  was a great holiday for us. It helped  us to fulfill the dreams of our next generation of fans already - that after 19 years of Legia Warsaw might again play in the Champions League. We consider it deeply unjust and contrary to the spirit of fair play to these dreams were shattered in the last 4 minutes of the meeting between Celtic and Legia.  That is how long Bartosz BereszyƄski  spent on the pitch-  our player who served the penalty imposed on him, and did not play in the first three qualifiers for the Champions League this season.

Celtic FC wrote one of the most beautiful pages in the history of European football, when in 1967 unexpectedly defeated in the final of the Champions Cup mighty Inter Milan headed by Helenio Herrera. Imagine gentlemen,  that Jock Stein and Billy McNeill were deprived of the chance to create their greatest triumph in their  career by an employee club completing the application form wrong when acting in good faith? Are any of the true legends of Celtic FC  likely to have accepted promotion when they had definitely lost the clash on the pitch? I am convinced that pride would not allow them to do so, this legendary Celtic pride. Could they look into the eyes of the fans, without ridicule?  I appeal to men, that you have established to the best traditions of honor and integrity that the 126 years were characterized by your great club. Do not destroy the beautiful club heritage that you have been left to care for by previous generations, "The Bhoys". I challenge you, would you in the spirit of the game and fair play, and on the basis of Art. 34 paragraph 5 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, with  Legia Warsaw take a common position on the UEFA disciplinary bodies. Meet in Warsaw or in Glasgow and let's settle this matter honorably.  Willie Maley, the legendary manager of Celtic FC, ​​once said that your players "are evaluated only on their character." Justice depends on you whether this noble creed of your icons will be replaced by the opportunistic exploitation of legal loopholes. Many fans of Celtic FC wears on flags, T-shirts, in the hearts and tattoos motto: "Keep the Faith". It will be accompanied by me in anticipation of the Lords answer.’’

The above statement reads like an attempted guilt trip and truth be told Legia were conspicuously silent when it transpired their fans had attacked Celtic supporters in Warsaw. The issue is clearly one of governance and UEFA for once acted promptly and fairly. No one doubts that Legia Warsaw were the better side over both ties but the rules should be applied without fear or favour. Celtic have received rough justice from UEFA in the past particularly when they refused to deal with the cheats of Rapid Vienna in 1984 and the thugs of Atletico in 1974. The responsibility for this mistake lies clearly with the Polish side and Celtic have done nothing other than adhere to the rules. If the boot was on the other foot one wonders how Legia would respond to Celtic’s pleas? I doubt they’d pick up the phone.
This unexpected lifeline gives Celtic another chance at participation in the greatest club tournament on the planet and standing in our way are Slovenian Champions NK Maribor. In reaching the final qualification round NK Maribor have defeated Croatia side FC Zrinjski (2-0, 0-0) and Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv (1-0, 2-2) so it’s clear that they are no mugs and Celtic will need a vast improvement in their form to progress.

Back in the 1980s Maribor competed in the Yugoslav league and were relegated after a bribery scandal in which they had set aside funds to pay off opposition players and match officials. They foolishly kept a detailed record of the payments in a ‘black book’ and this fell into the hands of the authorities. These days Maribor play to less than 5000 fans in domestic games but their standard of play is good. They have dominated Slovenian football since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, with 12 titles and 8 cups.  Maribor’s form in European competition in recent years is fairly good. Led by Brazilian forward Marcos Tavares they have performed well against the likes of Rangers (2-1, 1-1), Hibs (3-0, 3-2) Wigan (2-1, 1-3) Spurs (1-1, 1-3) and Seville (2-2, 1-2) so Celtic need to lift their game and take nothing for granted. This will be a very difficult tie and if Celtic perform as they did in the two games with Legia Warsaw then they’ll be very unlikely to progress. Maribor will see the tie as easier than playing Legia given the ease of their wins over Celtic but they will hopefully find a very different Celtic heading for Slovenia. Celtic will hopefully have added to their squad and be fitter, sharper and less tactically naive than they were in Poland. They will surely also benefit from returning to Celtic Park which inspires the team to greater things? The Hoops may have had an unexpected shot at reaching the Champions league for the third consecutive season and they must grab it with both hands.

As for Legia, I do sympathise but in the harsh world of professional sport you can’t make such stupid errors and expect no punishment. It was, at the end of the day, a mess of their own making.





Thursday, 7 August 2014

A position of Strength

A Position of Strength

The young man in the Celtic shirt in front of me got up to leave the Celtic v Legia Warsaw game after the Poles had scored their second goal and hammered the final nail into the coffin of Celtic’s Champions League dreams. As the exultant Polish supporters drummed and roared, the young chap stopped and gave them the middle finger. His gesture was no doubt born out of frustration rather than any inherent dislike of Poles but in truth the people responsible for this shambolic performance were not the efficient if unspectacular Legia side but the powers that be inside Celtic Park. We have witnessed the exit of quality players from Celtic in recent seasons and squandered millions of pounds on players who simply haven’t delivered. For many, Tony Watt looked a better prospect than the languid Amido Balde and yet Watt was sold for less than half the fee the club paid for Balde. Samaras, who often excelled in European games, was allowed to walk away when he would probably have been happy to stay at Celtic. In recent times, Alfred Finnbogason, a striker who scored 53 goals in 65 games in the tough world of Dutch football was allowed to escape Celtic’s clutches because the club wouldn’t meet the relatively modest fee demanded. £5m would not have broken the bank and we would have had a proven goal-scorer on our books to excite the fans and give the team some threat up front.  In football you build on a position of strength so that success will continue. Celtic appear to be doing the opposite at the moment and with the new club heading to the SPFL next season or so, we may regret being only a few streets ahead of them when it should be miles.

There is an increasing and vociferous minority who are of the mind that the board is happy to manage a relative decline in the playing side of the club provided the books balance and as fans they will never accept that. It is of course the board’s responsibility to ensure the club is in good shape and they rightly point out that Celtic operates in a low income environment in Scotland and makes the bulk of its money from season ticket sales and of course the Champions League when we qualify. The difficulty in deciding whether to invest in the side to make Champions League qualification more likely or invest once the team has actually qualified is not one the fans recognise. Many feel an overall plan to increase the quality of the player pool each season is surely not beyond Celtic’s reach? The supporters recognise that the big boys in Europe seem to have money to burn and players are exchanged for sums up to £80m these days. They recognise that we can’t compete with that nor morally speaking should we try too. But shrewd investment in decent, experienced players can reap rewards. In 2006 Celtic defeated Manchester United with a squad which cost less than Wayne Rooney. In Joe Venglos’ time we picked up a little Slovakian for £300,000 as our miserable press scoffed at the club’s lack of ambition. The player was of course Lubomir Moravcic and he soon made them eat their words.

I have followed Celtic for many years and last night was painful to watch at times. In that second half young players like McGregor and Forest carried the fight to the Poles when they could but more experienced professionals were virtually anonymous. On one occasion Forest skipped past the full back only to turn back again as there was no one in the box to cross to. Leadership and guile were lacking and the team didn’t have the cohesion of the well drilled, if essentially ordinary, Legia side. There were squabbles amongst the fans, even one or two scuffles and that demonstrates how much we all care about the club. The new manager has a real job on his hands and one hopes this isn’t one of those situations where the new man’s ideas are unpopular and players become unresponsive. We have all been raised on teams where a nucleus of Celtic fans actually played for the club and gave 100% for those shirts every match. They understood what it means to the support because they are part of it. If anyone offers less than that they should be shown the door. It may well be that adjusting to Delia’s methods coupled with poor form led to the events in Warsaw and Murrayfield but as professionals, as Celtic players, we expect and deserve much better than that.

Ronny Delia’s introduction to Celtic has been a difficult one. He does deserve time to shift the dead wood, bring in some quality and develop a cohesive pattern of play.  The supporters will be watching the board very carefully now to see if they will back the new manager and allow him to bring a little quality to the Celtic side. If players such as Forster and Van Dijk are allowed to leave and lesser replacements brought in it will not sit well with a support which is increasingly angry at the apparent asset stripping of the first team. Celtic is first and foremost a football club and the footballing department is the most important part of the club. We come to watch decent players and back them with that passion and pride which often drives them to higher things. We pay hard earned money, travel many miles and put up with often poor treatment as supporters but we love our club and we want the people who run Celtic to communicate to us their vision of how they intend to give us a team we deserve. Everything the PLC does should be geared towards improving the team and not improving the dividends of wealthy shareholders.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Dulce et Decorum Est

 The Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917 was conceived as the big push which would punch through the German front lines and end the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. British and Empire forces led the way and after initial gains the battle descended into a brutal and bloody stalemate. Before it was over, 160,000 British and Commonwealth and 125,000 German soldiers were casualties. One Scottish Battalion had been attacking a chemical factory which had been fortified and was being stoutly defended by the Germans. On May 15th/16th the 6th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders threw themselves at the factory and were again repulsed. The Regimental diary records 43 dead, 26 missing and 51 wounded on that day which was sadly typical of the slaughter on the western front. Among them was a miner from Fife known to those close to him as ‘Big Peter.’ 
Peter Johnstone signed for Celtic from Glencraig Celtic and proved to be an excellent player in various positions. Willie Maley had constructed an excellent Celtic team in the early years of the twentieth century and it brought many honours to Glasgow’s east end. The ‘six in a row’ side (1905-10) was one of the finest in Celtic’s history and Peter slotted in among legends such as Patsy Gallagher, ‘Sunny’ Jim Young, Andy McAtee and Jimmy Quinn. A confident and self-assured player, Peter was similarly confident off the field. Willie Maley could be an imposing figure, a man who could strike fear into the hearts of lesser men but Peter Johnstone was one player who had the courage to argue his case with the autocratic manager. Maley may have had many verbal spats with the big Fifer but he was never in doubt about his talent or his usefulness to the team. Peter Johnstone helped Celtic to four titles, two Scottish Cups as well as many other honours during his time with the club. He took part in the ‘World Championship’ matches with Burnley in Budapest in the fateful summer of 1914. Celtic drew 1-1 and then defeated Burnley 2-0 in England to claim a trophy which due to the sweeping tides of history wasn’t delivered to Celtic Park for 74 years. It is fair to say that the Celtic team of that era was probably the best side in the world at the time and Peter played a major part in the successes they enjoyed. The fans adored the big Fifer and Peter rewarded them with many excellent displays in the Hoops. However as war clouds gathered in 1914, things were about to take a very different turn for the club and indeed the whole country.
The first two years of the war saw volunteer battalions flood into the forces and this precluded the need for conscription. However as the casualty lists lengthened few were in any doubt that conscription was sure to be introduced. In 1916 conscription duly arrived and by the end of the war 1 in 4 of the male Population of Britain and Ireland had fought in the war. Peter Johnstone worked in the mines as well as turning out for Celtic and this could have continued until the end of the war as mining was a protected occupation. However, he was of a mind to enlist before being drafted into the forces and despite Willie Maley using his considerable powers of persuasion, he did so in March 1916. Initially he was kept away from the fighting to play football for his Regimental team and even took the train north to play for Celtic as late as October 1916. Soon enough though his request to join a fighting Battalion was accepted and he found himself in the mud and blood of the western front.

The assault on the chemical factory at Fampaux in April and May 1917 involved Scottish, Irish and South African Soldiers. Peter Johnstone found himself facing a fortified position bristling with over 30 German Machine guns. One history of the battle gives a flavour of the situation he and his comrades faced as they advanced…

They were seen immediately, probably by spotters from the German 31st regiment who have climbed a 60 foot chimney, or by a German recce plane that had registered them. They were subjected to long range machine gun fire from the Chemical Works and when they were joined by the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the road they were shelled. After what seemed an eternity they were off showing great courage, presenting as perfect targets to the Germans, silhouetted in their khaki battledress and Mackenzie kilts against the snow.Artillery had been scheduled to support  them, but from the off it was of absolutely no value to the woefully exposed men. It did not land on the Germans at all and not a shell was seen to land in the Chemical works. Despite the apparent futility of the action the men of the Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Irish Fusiliers pressed on against 30 machine guns, in a display of extraordinary courage.’’

In the aftermath of the slaughter one officer bitterly complained about the futility of throwing infantry against entrenched enemy positions without effective support. He concluded his report by stating….

 "The total losses sustained by the battalion were 12 officers and 363 other ranks out of a total of 12 officers and 420 other ranks who took part in the attack. I leave these losses to speak for the gallantry of all ranks."

When news of Peter Johnstone’s death filtered back to Scotland there was genuine shock and grief. He was in his own way a celebrity of the time and it hit home that this war was indeed going to consume so many of the brightest and best. Willie Maley was particularly affected by the news of Peter’s passing. The tough Celtic Manager was said to have cried and entered a period of melancholy which we might call today depression. Peter left a wife and two children behind when he died and Maley made a point of travelling to Fife and ensuring they were adequately cared for. It was the least he could do for ‘Big Peter’ the courageous big Celt who had the gall to argue with him.

Peter Johnstone was only one of over 10 million soldiers who lost their lives in that deadly conflict we call the Great War. Like so many others he was hastily buried in an unmarked grave. Today he is remembered not just on the war memorial at Fauborg d'Amiens but also by Celtic fans who know their history. Other Celts perished too in the ‘war to end all wars’ and on this centenary we remember them all. 

As World War 1 leaves folk memory and enters history, it can be difficult for the younger generation to grasp the scale of industrialised slaughter it brought. Perhaps the poet, Wilfred Owen, himself killed a week before the war ended, sums up the horror of world war one best...

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Rest in Peace Peter and thank you for all you did for Celtic. Perhaps a fitting memorial to you and all the victims of such conflicts would be an end to the obscenity of war forever. Sadly, 100 years after the beginning of the war to end all wars it still seems a long way off.


Peter Johnstone (1887-1917)

Husband, Father, Celt.