Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Laughter and the Tears

The Laughter and the Tears
The Rangers coaching staff had a decision to make with regards the wee lad from Fife. ‘Too wee, you need to be bigger to make the grade in the modern game.’ The 12 year old wasn’t offered an S-Form on the basis of his physique and much to his disappointment his Friday night training sessions with Rangers were over.  His mother was quietly glad as the drive she made every week from Fife took it out of her. She’d pack a flask of soup, a good book and a blanket as she drove him to Falkirk on a Tuesday night and Glasgow on a Friday for his training sessions. She’d sit in the car for a couple of hours in all weathers waiting for him to finish his football practice. She knew he was a determined lad and would not be giving up his dream of being a professional footballer. His Dyslexia made school difficult at times and he sometimes seemed happiest clattering into tackles on the football field than sitting in class. Rangers’ decision not to sign him was perhaps something of a blessing in disguise.

His determination caught the eye of Hibs scout, John Park, who took a chance on the dyslexic lad from Hill of Beath. He was signed up at the age of 13 and worked his way through the ranks at Hibs with others such as Gary O’Connor, Derek Roirdan, Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson and Steven Fletcher.  In May 2003 as Celtic fans prepared for the great airlift to Seville, Hibs gave a debut to a skinny 17 year old lad who set up 3 goals in their 3-1 victory over Aberdeen. His name was of course Scott Brown.

It’s a matter of record that Scott built a reputation as an aggressive midfielder who enjoyed the physical confrontations of the midfield engine room. It is beyond dispute that during his 110 games for Hibs, he became one of the most sought after young players in Scotland. In early 2007 Kevin Thomson admitted to the press that he had spoken to Scott about joining him at Ibrox. Reading was also interested in the player but Brown preferred to be fighting for honours rather than fighting relegation in England. He said at the time…

‘If I had chosen Reading I would probably be fighting a relegation battle next season and then maybe disappearing into the Championship. In two years' time people would have been saying, 'Remember that lad Scott Brown – whatever happened to him?'

Rangers fans sensing that Brown would be joining Kevin Thomson at Ibrox taunted Hibs fans with chants of ‘We’re going to sign Scott Brown’ but with a host of options before him, Brown surprised many by signing for Gordon Strachan’s Celtic in May 2007.  Brown said at the time…

"Everyone knows Celtic is one of the biggest names in football and the opportunity to join a club of Celtic's stature was one I had to take. Celtic has enjoyed a great season, lifting the SPL Championship and making great progress in Europe. The club has a magnificent support and I will be doing all I can to make sure I play my part in delivering more and more success to these fans."

The £4.4m fee Celtic paid for Scott Brown was a record between Scottish clubs. His mother, Heather, said at the time with a hint of a smile…

"Most of the village wanted him to sign for Rangers but his uncle Bert, Auntie Jeanette and cousin Ryan are especially pleased because they're all Celtic fans and shareholders."

He began season 2007-08 in the Hoops and played over 40 times as Celtic came back from a seemingly impossible deficit in the SPL to set up a tremendous finale to the season. He missed two Old Firm games in the spring of 2008 due to suspension but Strachan was able to win both games using Barry Robson and Paul Hartley as his midfield anchors. As that tumultuous season reached its climax Celtic lost one of their best loved sons when Tommy Burns lost his fight with skin cancer on May 15th. The club was shaken to its very foundation but from the tragedy of losing Tommy Burns came a determination to go on and win the title in his memory. For Scott Brown it would have been doubly painful as his sister, Fiona was in the final stages of her own tragic struggle with the same illness.

On May 22nd 2008 Celtic defeated Dundee United 1-0 at Tannadice to clinch one of the most emotionally charged matches in the club’s history. The title was won and the supporters and players remembered Tommy Burns as laughter mixed with tears on a memorable night in Dundee. For Scott Brown, a young man cavorting with his team mates on the pitch, the smiles hid his anguish. As he hugged Celtic owner Dermot Desmond in the wake of that title triumph, few would have guessed the troubles he was dealing with off the field. Just two weeks after Celtic’s triumph on Tayside, Brown lost his sister Fiona. She was just 21 and he was devastated. It was a testing time for the promising young midfielder as it would be for anyone caught in such circumstances. His first full season with Celtic had certainly been one of success on the field but that paled into insignificance when one considers the off field tragedies he and his family were trying to cope with.

In the almost 8 years since Scott Brown joined Celtic he has grown into one of the best midfielders in the country. He is Celtic Captain and a regular in the Scotland team. He has currently won 4 titles, 2 Scottish Cups and 2 League cups to add to the 2007 League Cup he won with Hibs. He has played over 200 games for Celtic and has matured into a fine player who has tempered his wilder streak without losing any of his edge in midfield. He has given Celtic fans some great memories and as one fan pointed out after a disappointing result when he was injured, ‘There’s a hole in the midfield when Broony isn’t there and it’s a big one.’  His contribution to Celtic has grown as he has matured and he is currently the first name on the team sheet. In 2008 he was the new kid on the block surrounded by older players such as Robson, McManus and Hartley. Today he is the leader on the field, the mainstay of a Celtic side which is currently dominating Scottish football.

He has come a long way since Rangers decided he was too small to make the grade. I for one am glad he decided to join Celtic and that his journey took him up the Celtic way and into Paradise.



Thursday, 26 March 2015

Children of a lesser God

Children of a lesser God

Dumfries 1915
The old man coughed again, his body arching with the effort. So many years working in the poorest parts of London and Glasgow had taken their toll. At 74 years of age he was tired, so tired. Bright April sunshine slanted in the window and glinted on the plain silver cross which stood by his bed. His mind wandered these days, a confusion of images seen as if through fog. Voices from the past echoed in his head; his mother calling him from door of their cottage in Sligo, then the sound of children singing hymns so beautifully. ‘Yes, the children’ he thought to himself, ‘The poor, hungry children.’ He had done so much for them but in the great scheme of things it was so little. Still so many of those little ones went without. He closed his eyes intending to pray but from the mist of the past his mind replayed scenes long gone…

Glasgow 1887

A small crowd of mainly ragged and poor individuals stood in the slow drizzle listening to the man speak. He roared out with confidence and no little emotion, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life! That invitation to the eternal banquet, Brethren, is open to all be they Mohammedans, Jews or Papists!’ The Crowd, which numbered less than 50, listened in silence as the preacher held aloft his black, leather bound Bible, ‘Do not be duped by the Harlot of Rome, Brethren, all their false promises and idolatry will lead only to damnation! Only here in the book of life you will find salvation.’ Across the street, sheltering under a shop’s awning from the incessant rain, Brother Dorotheus watched the scene in silence. He had seen it many times in his years working amongst the poor in the east of Glasgow. The preaching would be followed by an invitation to some food in the small hall behind the man. Some, the most hungry, would go inside. Others, mostly those with folk memories of the great hunger in Ireland who knew well the literal and symbolic meaning of ‘taking the soup,’ would not. Dorotheus sighed and continued his walk in the rain. He would speak to Andrew about this and see how his plans were coming along.

Less than a mile away Andrew Kerin’s stood at window in the Sacred Heart Primary School watching the children play in the yard outside. Their carefree laughter belied the difficult lives many of them endured. Some of them, even on such an inclement day, wore no shoes, most were dressed poorly in whatever their parents could afford.  The Education act passed in 1872 may have made it compulsory for those aged 5-13 to come to school but he knew that many still had work to do to help sustain their families. Absenteeism was high and Andrew knew from his travels around the east end that many of school age were working long hours in fume filled factories and mills. How could he blame them in such hard times? A knock at the door broke into his thoughts and he said, ‘Come in,’ in his still recognisably Irish accent. The School Secretary entered, ‘Mr Glass to see you Head Master.’ Andrew smiled, ‘John, dear friend, come in, sit.’ The stocky, bearded man who wore a smart tweed suit sat in the chair opposite Kerins. ‘Good day to you Andrew, I have more news of our venture. It seems our friend might be willing to lease us the land I spoke of last week. I may get him to settle on a rent of £50 per year.’ Andrew Kerins smiled, ‘That is indeed fortuitous news. Our benefactors have not left us bereft. There is £200 or more in the coffers and perhaps we should proceed. There is much need John and the church is losing people to the evangelisers in our midst who steal them away with a bowl of stew and a second hand overcoat.’ Glass nodded, ‘I have seen them, Andrew. It is important that we act and act soon. I’ll meet Pat Welsh tomorrow and go view the ground one last time but I feel sure it may be our best option and one closest to the majority of our people.’ The elderly school Secretary entered with a tray bearing hot tea at that point, ‘It’s a cold day Mr Glass, I thought you could do with some warmth.’ Glass smiled, ‘Tis most kind of you Miss Kelly, one meets nothing but warmth in this school.’ Her cheeks flushed a little as she placed the tray on the desk and left. When she had closed the door behind her, the two friends talked more of their project and the urgency required to bring it to fruition.

The meeting hall in East Rose Street was full to overflowing and the noisy crowd filled the air with a blue haze of smoke. Andrew Kerins, flanked by Brother Dorotheus, entered the room and the hubbub subsided. John Glass, Pat Welsh and a few other key men were already seated at the great oak table signalled for the assembled men to sit as the meeting was about to begin. Kerins sat as his friend and fellow Marist Brother Dorotheus gazed out at the crowd until silence reigned. He began to speak and blessed himself with the words, ‘In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.’ The assembled group did the same before settling to hear the good Brother speak. ‘Directly we beseech thee oh Lord to guide our deliberations this day and help bring to fruition our plans. This we ask in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.’ With that he sat and John Glass stood looking out at what seemed a sea of faces, ‘Gentlemen, our plans are at an advanced stage and the piece of ground we discussed at our last meeting has been rented. It will take an effort to fill the many holes in the ground but I feel sure we shall not lack volunteers for the labour. We have persuaded some of the leading players of the day to wear our colours and we should be ready by the spring to play our first game.’ There was a murmur of approval around the hall as he went on. ‘I now ask our most enthusiastic and energetic supporter to speak, Brother Walfrid.’ Glass, who was always careful to give Andrew Kerin’s his religious name at such public events, sat as Andrew Kerins stood. ‘Firstly I must thank Mr Glass, all the Committee and of course our great community here in the east end for the support they are giving this venture. It is a great and noble thing we do in seeking to feed the hungry. Our children must have a better start in life and must not be stunted in body, mind or spirit by the lack of the necessities of life.’ Again there was a murmur of approval and much nodding. Kerins went on, ‘You may recall that I stated some months ago that a football club will be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and unemployed? Well, it gives me great pride to tell you all that the club we dreamed of is close to being born. It shall bear a name suitable and mindful of  its origin and that name shall be ‘Celtic.’ At this there was some applause and cheering. Brother Walfrid waited until things quietened before continuing, ‘There is much work to be done for many clubs have been born and failed to live beyond infancy. I urge you all to redouble your efforts and see that our club, our Celtic, goes on to do great things...’

Dumfries 1915
The old man opened his eyes again. Five minutes or five hours could have passed since he had drifted in his dreamlike state. ‘Celtic’ he breathed, ‘Yes, I remember…’ The door of the small room opened and one of the younger Marist Brothers entered, ‘I have some soup for you Walfrid and the good news that your team has won again. They beat Third Lanark by 4-0 and are by all accounts worthy Champions again this year.’ Walfrid tried to sit up but was not strong enough. The young man helped him and fed him with a spoon showing all the care and patience a mother would to a child in his weaning years. When he was gone the old man closed his eyes again. An enveloping darkness seemed to cover him but he felt no fear. Then a light, bright as the sun seemed to usher him onto a lush green field where he stood for the briefest moment looking at row upon row green seats shining in bright sunshine. Emblazoned on the seats were huge white letters which spelt out a familiar word. Some figures appeared around him, they were smiling gently at him. He recognised many of the faces, players, Committee men, friends from the past. A small child, dressed in a green and white hooped shirt stepped towards him and smiled before saying, ‘Thank you, Brother, and handing him a small bundle. He looked at the child, so healthy when compared to the urchins he taught in the years gone by. He turned then to the small bundle he now held in his hand and saw that it was a small container of dark soil from which grew a bright, emerald shamrock. He smiled as he looked around him and spoke words he had said to an old friend long ago which now came back to him…

"Well, well. Time has brought changes. Outside ourselves there are few left of the old brigade. It's good to see you all so well and I feel younger with the meeting… Goodbye, God bless you."

The old man smiled and knew then that his labours were over. He glanced one last time at the letters emblazoned on the seats. They read: CELTIC. He smiled slightly, turned and walked across the lush, emerald turf towards the distant tunnel.

His club had made a difference. His people had made it. He was happy.


Andrew Kerins: May 1840 –April 1915

‘The Most enthusiastic Celt of all.’

Thank you Brother.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Case for the Defence

Case for the Defence

Any vestige of respect the Scottish Football Association had among Celtic fans is melting like April snow. The ludicrous decision to charge John Guidetti for singing a song which contains the term 'Hun' on Dutch TV is small minded, petty and just plain wrong. Those of you reading this don’t need me to explain the semantics involved in the evolution of the word ‘Hun.’ It means in the context of Scottish football, Rangers and/or their supporters and has its roots in their drunken and brutish behaviour at football matches in the 1960s. So desperate are some to drag Celtic fans into the cesspit of bigotry which surrounds Rangers like a bad smell that they have created a mock-shock campaign to rebrand the word ‘Hun.’ Not only have I had to endure a lifetime of triumphalist, bigoted filth being rammed down my throat, I am now told that actually I was the bigot all along. Sorry, I’m not buying this pathetic, revisionist nonsense.

Never in my time following Celtic has the club had a bias against any faith or race. Can Rangers say the same?

Never in all of my years following Celtic have I heard thousands singing vile songs about a given religious group. Can Rangers say the same?

Never in all my years following Celtic have I heard thousands of our fans singing a song telling the offspring of  a migrant group that ‘The famine is over, why don’t you go home.’ Can Rangers say the same?

To try and draw moral equivalence between what went on at Ibrox and Celtic Park is utterly preposterous and insulting. Similarly, the idea that the line 'the Huns are deid' is mocking a member club really is nonsense. If they did indeed die with liquidation then the current manifestation of the club isn't actually the club the song is talking about. We also hear some of those sensitive souls who follow the newco saying the Police should be investigating Guidetti. I take it they also want the thousands singing the Billy Boys and Famine song at Hampden in February investigated too? Thought not. Their hypocrisy stinks. The footballing authorities are really portraying themselves as inept once again and it really is time Celtic Football Club said ‘enough’ and took these people on. Any decent lawyer could destroy the SFA’s case against John Guidetti in 5 minutes. Celtic have sat in silence over the whole Rangers liquidation fiasco and the failure of the footballing authorities to strip Rangers of titles won when they were in flagrant breach of the rules. They said nothing when the media perpetuate the same club myth. Now though they should back Guidetti with all their might because accepting this nonsense is tacit approval of the SFA branding not only Guidetti but thousands of decent Celtic fans as bigots. This is the same SFA who did S-F-A about thousands singing the Famine Song and Billy Boys at Hampden. The same body which said and did nothing during the long dark night of Rangers 'apartheid' years.

Being of a certain vintage I recall Jock Stein signing Alfie Conn from Spurs. The former Rangers man was a thorn in Celtic’s side in the early 1970s and scored against them in the 1973 cup final. Conn was in every sense of the word a ‘Rangers man’ and yet Stein told the fans to welcome him and they did. They even had a song for him which the old Jungle would sing with gusto…

He used to be a Hun but he’s alright now, Alfie, Alfie

He used to be a Hun but he’s alright now, Alfie, Alfie Conn.’

That song suggests that being a ‘Hun’ isn’t necessarily a lifelong condition. A cursory five minute trawl of YouTube found fans of six other Scottish clubs calling Rangers or their fans Huns. Are Hearts, Hibs, Motherwell and Aberdeen fans bigots? Of course not, because ‘Huns’ means Rangers, nothing more. Despite the black propaganda and scramble to show the two Glasgow clubs as being two sides of the same coin, the decent majority know the truth. Celtic and their supporters have never, ever inhabited the moral sewer the worst of ‘Rapeepo’ inhabit and they never will.

There is an Arabic saying:

‘Sometime it is good to know the truth and speak the truth. Sometimes it is good to know the truth and speak about the weather.’

On this occasion it is time to speak the truth. We’ve had enough Celtic, defend your player and defend your support.



Saturday, 21 March 2015

Man up

Man up

Many Celtic fans have been of the opinion that the club has been treated less than fairly by officialdom on occasion. Historically we have seen Celtic Park closed for a month following crowd trouble at Ibrox. We have seen a shameful attempt to force the club to remove the Irish flag of its founders from the stand upon threat of expulsion from the league. We have witnessed an official hold up the registration of Jorge Cadette for almost six weeks at a vital stage in the season. On the field I have witnessed refereeing displays which are at best mystifying and at worst biased.

How then are we to take Paul Paton’s astonishing attack on Celtic which is much publicised in the press this week? He said among other things…

‘I think Celtic as a club can manipulate people more than Dundee United can. That kind of thing has been happening for years. We have seen some injustices in the last few games we have played and that causes frustration. It feels we do not get any decisions – and that it is continual.’

The series of games with Dundee United have been packed with incident and controversy but can we really say Celtic have had the lion’s share of decisions go our way? The first tie at Tannadice came in the wake of December’s 2-1 win for United in the SPFL. In that game Stefan Scepovic had a goal disallowed for off side which TV footage clearly showed was on. Clearly Celtic didn’t get the refereeing decisions that day. In recent times an Official actually resigned after admitting lying about why he changed his decision on a Celtic penalty at Tannadice. ('Dougie, Dougie') The Cup tie at Tannadice then saw the complaining Paton guilty of a nasty stamp on Anthony Stokes instep in the first half. This was followed blatant dive from Aidan Connolly to win a penalty. We later saw Ciftci go unpunished for kicking Scott Brown in the head after a challenge in the midfield. Anyone who suggests Celtic got the decisions that day is dreaming.

On we went to Hampden for the League cup final and a match Celtic dominated as the stats show. The Hoops had 18 attempts on goal to United’s 3. The controversial incidents in that game were the sending off of Sean Dillon for an awful tackle on Izaguirre. United would claim Celtic players surrounded the Ref but footage shows three United players were doing most of the badgering of the official. The tackle was very poor and the red card justified. Scott Brown’s shoulder tackle on Ryan Dow was the other main talking point in the game. I’ve seen penalties given for such challenges and I’ve seen them refused. It was a close call but perhaps United don’t do their case any good by the ridiculous manner some of their players go to ground. On more than one occasion in that game Celtic players and fans were frustrated by Gow and others blowing over in the wind. That apart Celtic were by some way the better side and deserved to win the Cup.

This week we saw the Scottish Cup replay at Celtic Park and Celtic destroyed United with a fluent and aggressive attacking display. The United goalkeeper could well have been sent off for his tackle on Griffiths early in the game. That apart, the only controversy surrounded the sending off of Anthony Stokes after a sleekit elbow to his mouth by the same Paul Paton who claims his teams don’t get the breaks against Celtic. Stokes was stupid to push him over but it was a cowardly and uncalled for action by the United player. Stokes later tweeted…

 “Great performance. On another note I get a sly elbow in the face by someone that has got nothing about them and get sent off, typical!”

As Celtic hammered United on football we then saw a pretty distasteful lunge by Ryan McGowan on a Celtic player lead to him seeing red. The reaction of Celtic players who were closest to the tackle suggests they thought it was a bad one. So why this complaining by United about being treated unfairly? Even Jackie McNamara who saw some injustices against Celtic during his decade at Celtic Park was spouting this nonsense. The man who once punched Mark Hately during a heated Old Firm game was defending the diving of Connolly. It may be old fashioned mind games which seek to pressure the Referee in this weekend’s SPFL match but more likely it is a cover for United’s awful form of late. They haven’t won a match since beating mighty Stranraer in early February. The last two matches they have lost to Celtic by 2-0 and 4-0 were run of the mill wins in which the best side won. United haven’t won a league match at Celtic Park since 1992 and that tells us much about how poor they have been not how poor officials have been. Any cursory look at the three recent Celtic v Dundee United games would suggest United have not been harshly treated, rather they got what their football deserved; nothing. Indeed in their last 60 matches in all competitions with Celtic, Dundee United has won just 2. That reflects Celtic’s footballing superiority over those 15 years so do us all a favour United: man up and stop looking for someone else to blame. You’ve been well beaten by the better team and your feeble search for excuses is embarrassing.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

To play football the Glasgow Celtic way


To play Football the Glasgow Celtic Way

Jock Stein led Scotland to one of their more memorable victories in the autumn of 1965 when 101,000 roared them to an unlikely but deserved win over the excellent Italian side of the era. The new manager of Celtic had agreed to help the national side out on an interim basis as they were close to qualifying for the 1966 world cup in England. Only the powerful Italians stood in their way and that win at Hampden saw everything rest on the match in Naples a few weeks later. Injuries and call offs left Stein with a weakened team for the vital game in Italy but the Scots travelled with some hope. The atmosphere inside the Stadio San Paolo was intimidating as the Italian fans realised that it was winner takes all. Scotland, with centre half Ron Yeats up front, held their own until 38 minutes when Pascutti slammed a loose ball home. The crowd was at fever pitch as the Scots struggled to stay in the game and were thankful for the half time whistle which gave them some respite. In the second half Scotland steadied the ship but as the half wore on they were again pushed back and the Stadio San Paolo sensed that Italy were in for the kill. The talented Italian side swept forward in blue waves and sealed the deal in 74 minutes in style. Talented attacking full back Giacinto Facchetti picked up a loose ball 25 yards from goal and clipped a floating shot over the head of the Scottish goalkeeper and into the net. The Italians would add a third in the dying seconds and Scotland’s dream of playing at the World Cup in England in 1966 was over. It was no disgrace to lose to such a fine side but Scotland’s fine crop of 1960s players had again failed to qualify for a major finals. Stein was now free to concentrate on Celtic having done his best and bringing Scotland so close.

In a Hotel near Naples the burly ex miner spotted Italian full back Giacinto Facchetti at the bar and shook his hand wishing him well at the following summer’s world cup. Stein, who had travelled to Italy in 1963 to study the methods of Helenio Herrera, sat beside the tall Italian and asked him to describe why Italian sides were so adept at defending. Using a mixture of broken English and drawing diagrams onto napkins, Facchetti outlined the basic theory of the ‘Door bolt’ or ‘Catenaccio’ system of defence. Stein listened eagerly and learned how the best Italian defences could erect an impregnable wall around their goal using a 1-4-4-1 formation. The key was the use of a sweeper or ‘Libero’ who played behind four defenders who man marked the attackers with all the tenacity and ruthlessness Italian defenders are famous for. The Libero recovers loose balls, helps double mark tricky forwards and scans the game in front of him looking for danger. This solid foundation allowed the team to draw the opposition on before hitting them with lightning counter attacks. It was not attractive to watch but it was effective. Facchetti’s club Inter Milan would win two European cups using the system and earn the name ‘Il Grande Inter.’ (The great Inter) Stein filed all he learned in that formidable footballing brain of his and even pocketed the napkins. He and Giacinta Facchetti sat discussing football until the wee small hours before parting with a friendly handshake. The Italian might have wondered if he’s cross paths with the inquisitive big Scot again. The way Stein saw it he had added to the sum of his footballing knowledge, to be the best you hard to learn from the best.

As 1965 turned to 1966, Stein’s budding young Celtic side were racing towards their first Championship in 12 long and bitter years. When it was sealed on an emotional day at Fir Park, Motherwell, Stein’s mind was already racing ahead to the prospect of Celtic playing in the European cup for the first time. On 28 September 1966, a crowd of 47,604 fans watched Celtic beat a stubborn FC Zurich at Celtic Park.  Tommy Gemmell scored Celtic’s first ever goal in the Champions Cup in 61 minutes and Joe McBride made it 2-0 eight minutes later. Celtic didn’t relent in the return leg and beat the Swiss 3-0.  Few who watched those ties would have thought Stein’s team could go all the way with teams such as Liverpool, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan in the mix. However as first Nantes and then the tough Vojvodina fell to Stein’s team, Celtic fans started to believe. Dukla Prague who had eliminated Anderlecht and Ajax along the way would prove equally difficult for the Celts to overcome but Stein’s reassuring way calmed the team at half time after they had watched Johnstone’s goal cancelled out by Strunc. Two goals in the second half by Wallace put Celtic in the driving seat and a hard fought 0-0 draw in Prague had them astonishingly in the European Cup Final at the first attempt. Waiting for them was Inter Milan who had bundled out a series of useful sides including holders, Real Madrid using their infamous catenaccio system.

The day before the 12th European Cup Final Stein led his Celtic side to watch Inter Milan go through their paces at training. As the pale Scots watched in the blazing Portuguese sun, a tall, sun tanned Italian approached them. He made straight for Jock Stein, ‘Napoli, you remember?’ Stein shook Giacinto Facchetti’s hand, ‘Aye, I remember all right son. Good to see you again.’ They chatted briefly, Facchetti using his broken English, Stein trying to curb his Lanarkshire accent. As they parted, Stein said, ‘See you tomorrow.’ The big Italian smiled and nodded, ‘Si, Domani.’ Stein watched him join his team mates who no doubt quizzed him about why he was talking to the Celtic Manager. Stein knew the system Herrera would play the following day but knowing it and being able to overcome it were two different matters. Stein knew that the Catenaccio system left room for the opposing full backs to push forward and that this would draw Inter defenders out and create space in the centre. He had just the men to do this in Jim Craig and Tommy Gemmell and he was certain he could break through Inter’s fortress like defence. He glanced around at his pale faced young warriors who were watching the Italians train. They showed interest and respect but no fear. ‘We’ll see what tomorrow brings,’ he said quietly to himself before rejoining his team.

24 hours later Stein and his team smashed the defensive formation of Inter Milan with a performance of high paced attacking play which had all of Europe applauding. "It felt like there were 22 Scottish players shooting at us from every direction," said Inter centre-back Aristide Guarneri. As Stein limped from the touchline, leaving his players to enjoy their triumph he glanced back at the pitch and saw the forlorn figure of Giacinto Facchetti, head bowed and stunned by what had just occurred. The elegant Fachetti would say later, ‘We were shocked, this was not supposed to be happening.’ That a Scottish club could play such wonderful football was no doubt a surprise to him but it was no surprise to Stein who had moulded one of the most formidable teams in Europe. The ‘door bolt’ system was over, the Lions had kicked the door down and there was no going back.

Years after the destruction of Inter Milan in the heat of Lisbon, defender Burgnich revealed just how demoralised they were as the Celtic onslaught swept over them on that May day in 1967, He said:

‘At one point Picchi turned to our goalkeeper Sarti and said, ‘Guilliano let it go, just let it go, It’s pointless, sooner or later they’ll get the winner. I never thought I’d hear those words. Never thought I’d hear my skipper tell the keeper to throw in the towel. It showed just how destroyed we were at that point. It was as if we didn’t want to prolong the agony.’

Jock Stein had listened and learned. He had created a team which had swept aside the defensive football of Inter Milan by playing their own version of total football. Others such as Ajax would follow in their wake but it was Stein who had created the template for a new brand of football, It was fast, attacking football, it was football played the Glasgow Celtic way.



Monday, 16 March 2015

The dogs bark but the caravan moves on

The dogs bark but the caravan moves on

The job’s too big for him,’ growled an angry fan as we trooped out of Murrayfield, the songs of jubilant Legia Warsaw fans ringing in our ears. ‘That was the worst I’ve seen Celtic since the 90s,’ another went on as his tousled haired son of about 10 regarded him with a forlorn look. It was indeed a fairly wretched display from Celtic on that sun kissed evening and the new Manager was already under pressure. Fans have every right to be angry if the team misfires or lets them down and Deila’s rather bemused assertion that we are where we are because we are not yet good enough to be in the Champions League fell mainly on deaf ears. The unexpected reprieve from UEFA which arrived after Legia fielded an ineligible player was welcomed but again Celtic failed to deliver. They blew it against Maribor when they were there for the taking and Deila was again being slammed, this time for not playing Kris Commons from the outset. Results in the late summer and autumn were patchy as Celtic’s players tried to get to grips with Deila’s tactics and fitness demands. The media was generally hostile and seemed to want the Manager to fail and some referred to him as ‘Celtic’s Paul Le Guen.’ They seemed incapable of cutting him some slack on the grounds that Celtic was clearly in a transitional phase. He said after a rather unconvincing 2-1 win over FC Astra in October…

'On Thursday night it looked like they were a little bit afraid to lose. But when we went 1-0 up, suddenly everything was going smooth and quick. We need to get that freedom into our play. Again I have to say I think I have been very clear in my goals this season: we want to go through in the Europa League and we want to win the Treble.’

The man does not lack ambition for Celtic and a turning point of sorts came after Celtic’s surprise loss to Hamilton Accies that October. Since then the team have won 16 of their 19 league matches and progressed in both domestic cup competitions.  Europe was both a salutary lesson in how far we have to go to become a Champions League team again but there were also flashes of a style of play more suited to the European arena and that augers well for the future. Ronny Deila has a clear philosophy of how he wants to play the game and as the team evolves and more of his players come into the system we may see more improvements. Gary MacKay Steven and Stuart Armstrong seem tailored made for the high pressing, fast tempo game Deila wants to develop at Celtic and it is encouraging to see the Scottish transfer market being utilised. For too long we have paid big bucks for players like Boerichter, Balde, Pukki and Bangura and watched them struggle in the so called ‘weak’ SPFL. Players such as Johnny Russell, who many consider would have done a good job at Celtic at half the price, were allowed to slip through their fingers.

 As Deila’s team found their form, they battled through their League Cup ties with considerable ease. The team’s progress in the competition was built on a solid defence which helped the team see off Hearts (3-0) Partick Thistle (6-0) and Rangers. (2-0) Sunday’s final against Dundee United was always likely to be a sterner test but the team coped well and dominated proceedings. The fact they managed 18 attempts on goal to Dundee United’s 3, demonstrates the degree of control they had over the game. Celtic won the trophy without conceding a goal and as Scott Brown held the trophy aloft at Hampden and the cheers went up there was an understanding among the fans around me that Celtic were an evolving team and far from the finished article. One fan commented, ‘If Deila’s team does win the treble then it’ll be the worst Celtic team ever to do this.‘ A harsh comment, given that the other three Celtic treble winning sides were Stein’s immortals in 1967 and 1969 and Martin O’Neil’s powerful side of 2001. It will be a major achievement for any side to win a domestic treble as it is far from easy as history proves. In 1966, 1971, 1972, 1974 and 1977 Stein’s Celtic missed out on the treble by losing one cup final. In other words, losing one game in each of those seasons stopped Stein winning an incredible 7 trebles in 11 years!

The SPFL title is in Celtic’s hands but don’t expect Aberdeen to fold. History teaches us that it isn’t over until it’s over and Deila will ensure no complacency infects the players. The Scottish Cup sees Celtic face Dundee United again and if successful there, John Hughes’s Inverness stand in our way and neither team will bow down to anyone. The treble is very possible, in fact it is tantalisingly close but there is much work to do before we can suggest that it’s anything like a certainty. Football is an unpredictable and quirky game with the odd upset along the way to keep it interesting. Like the Manager, I like to shake my head at talk of trebles and expound an old football adage, ‘We take it one game at a time and see where it gets us.’

It is interesting to see many who criticised the manager in the summer being won over. Celtic fans know their football and are not fooled easily. Most recognise the progress Deila is making and they accept that there is still a long way to go before they are where we all want them to be. Ronny’s victory on Sunday has brought him vindication and he is clearly after more. Elements of the media which questioned his right to hold a prestigious post such as Manager of Celtic are looking on sheepishly. If Delia wins the treble in his first season he will have every right to rub their noses in it. He should remember the words of Fergus McCann when he was asked if negativity from the press got to him. He shook his head and said with a small smile…

‘The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.’

Let us hope that Ronny’s moves on to Hampden in May and offers him a shot at treble glory.



Thursday, 12 March 2015

Waiting for the whistle

Waiting for the whistle

The car glided to a halt and parked quietly outside an unassuming house in  a quiet Lanarkshire town. Former Rangers and Scotland winger, Willie Henderson stepped from it and walked up the path to the front door. He knocked it and it was answered by the equally talented Jimmy Johnstone formerly of Celtic. Both men had long since retired from the game but liked nothing more than a chat about the good old days when they ruled Scottish football like some kind of sporting royalty. ‘Aw right Jimmy’ Henderson smiled, ‘Need a wee chat pal, ye spare five minutes.’ Jimmy waived his erstwhile rival through to the living room, ‘Come in Willie, good tae see ye pal.’ The two ex-pros sat on the couch in Johnstone’s modest living room, ‘Jim’s no doing well Jimmy, in fact he’s fading fast. Two liver transplants and now the cancer.’ Johnstone nodded, ‘Jesus, I mind I couldnae catch him in my first old Firm game. Baw tied tae his toes, running the show.’ He shook his head sadly. Henderson nodded, ‘Tell me about it, I trained wi him every day. He’d be out half the night drinking and chasing burds and still be brilliant on the park.’ Jimmy smiled slightly, ‘Ye mind he destroyed England  at Wembley in 67?’ Henderson sighed, ‘He was some player Jimmy, the best I played with. Rangers coaching staff knew he getting drunk most night’s but as long as he did it on the Park they didny care.’ Jimmy looked at his friend, ‘It was different at Celtic Park. Jock seemed tae know every bar owner in Scotland. He used to phone up and ask for me and then shout doon the phone, ‘get yer arse up the road ya wee bastard.’ They two old friends laughed. The former Rangers winger adjusted his glasses and said ruefully, ‘He was some man Jock, if we had him at Ibrox I think we’d have won the European Cup.’ Jimmy smiled, ‘No way he’d take that job wi the board telling him tae check what school players went tae. Jock hated that side of things.’ Henderson nodded, ‘Aye, how daft was that? We missed oot on some great players. Changed days noo thank God.’

The two old timers chatted away a bittersweet hour remembering the triumphs and disasters, the laughter and tears of a lifetime in Scottish football. As Henderson rose to leave he looked at Jimmy, ‘I’m going over tae see Jim next week wee man, he’d be thrilled if you came along to say hello.’ Jimmy smiled, ‘I’d be delighted Willie and stop calling me wee man am an inch bigger than you.’ As Johnstone waved Henderson off he thought wistfully that it would be less of a ‘hello to Baxter and more of a ‘goodbye.’ A small boy in a Celtic shirt was passing the house and called out, ‘Aw right Jimmy, ma Da says you were the best ever!’ Henderson retorted without breaking his stride, ‘Tell yer Da he was third best after me and slim Jim.’ The blonde haired lad watched confused as the little man with the big cigar got into his car and drove off before turning to Johnstone. ‘Who was that Jimmy?’ Johnstone smiled, ‘One of the best wee man, one of the best.’

Saturday the 7th of April 2001 dawned bright and breezy. Jimmy was up early getting ready for his trip to see his old friend ‘Stanley.’ They had called Jim Baxter ‘Stanley’ after Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter and joked with some truth that slim Jim was funnier. Today was also the day that Celtic played St Mirren in a match which could decide the title. Three more points and Martin O’Neil’s powerful side would be champions. Willie Henderson’s car pulled into Viewpark at 10am and Jimmy watched the wee man exchanging jokes with some Celtic fans up early for the game. He was respected by both sides of the old firm divide perhaps because he was a good player but more likely because he was a good guy. Jimmy was soon sitting beside him as the car headed for the M74 and onwards towards the south side of Glasgow. ‘Think the Celts will clinch it today?’ Henderson smiled. ‘Aye,’ Jimmy replied, ‘St Mirren are no great shakes.’ Jimmy was quiet for a moment before asking, ‘How is Stanley, I mean is he on heavy sedation?’ Henderson shook his head as he turned onto the motorway, ‘He’s sharp as a tack Jimmy but he knows the game’s in injury time. He’s just waiting on the final whistle.’  The car cruised through the empty streets and came to a halt outside a neat house on a quiet suburban street.

Henderson knocked the door which was opened by a pale woman who looked drawn and tired, ‘Aw right Norma, brought an old pal over tae see Jim.’ The woman shook Johnstone’s hand, ‘No introductions needed, how are you Jimmy?’ Jinky nodded, ‘I’m good Norma, thanks.’ She smiled and led them to a bedroom in which Jim Baxter lay on a large bed, a plethora of tubes protruding from him. ‘Visitors for you Jim,’ she said before closing the door and leaving them alone. ‘Aw right Willie,’ he smiled weakly, who’s that you’ve brought wi ye?’ Henderson grinned, ‘Ye no recognise wee Jinky? Ye roasted his team in yon 63 Cup Final.’ Baxter’s eyes lit up with genuine affection, ‘Jimmy! How are ye? Great tae see you.’ Jimmy sat on the bed and looked at his old adversary and old friend. ‘I’m good Stanley, how are you?’ The former Scotland star smiled bravely, ‘Game’s up for me pal but I’ve had a good run. No complaints.’

On a quiet Saturday morning three grey haired, ex footballers laughed like teenagers again as they recalled the antics and adventures they got up to when time was long and all things possible. It was in its own way a golden few hours for them, a time to forget advancing years and the onset of illness. Their laughter echoed around the room as one story after another poured from them and they relived the lost days of their youth. In a strange way they were happy despite knowing that one of their number was soon to leave them. Jimmy saw the acceptance in his eyes but he also saw the courage. It was the same courage which got him through some games when the opposition use fair means and foul to stop him. Stanley had made his peace with the world. He had no regrets.

Later that day Jimmy watched Tommy Johnson slam home the only goal of a nervous match with St Mirren to clinch the 2000-01 title for Celtic. The old stadium was going wild as he watched from the stand. Players come and go, he thought to himself, but Celtic goes on. New heroes appear, that was the way of things. Men like Jimmy, Willie and Stanley had had their day and if some remembered them fondly then they were glad.
He looked at the happy faces all around him in his beloved Celtic Park and was happy for them all. Celtic had deserved this title and had played some great football. Even Stanley would agree with that.

A few months after Jim Baxter passed away, Jimmy Johnstone was was diagnosed with MotorNeurone disease.He lost his courageous fight a few short years later and one of the last people to speak to him was his old friend Willie Henderson. They were fierce rivals on the pitch and proud of the clubs they each represented but friends when the game was over.
Slim Jim and Jimmy were two greats of the Scottish game. Remembered with pride.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Stating the obvious

Stating the obvious

There is a scene in the cult comedy series Fawlty Towers where Basil gets annoyed at his wife stating a rather obvious point and says to her, ‘Can't we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? Next contestant - Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Special subject - the bleedin' obvious.’ What I am about to write below may well have some of the Celtic fans saying the same sort of thing to me. The words below will be to many of you a restating of facts which are in most people’s minds ‘bleedin’ obvious’ but bear with me.

I had an interesting debate with a friend who follows the blue side of Glasgow recently and had a wry smile when he told me that Kris Boyd was a better striker than Henrik Larsson. He had been listening to Gordon Dalziel singing Boyd’s praises on the radio and said of Boyd… ‘He’s the SPL all-time top scorer,’ as if this was the clinching argument. I shook my head in disbelief and outlined the reasons why he was wrong. It is never easy to convince a chap with an innate dislike of Celtic that he is mistaken but he listened politely enough as I outlined a few facts which pedantic folk like me like to rhyme off.

Firstly Henrik Larsson is indeed behind Boyd in the SPL goal charts but it took Boyd 374 SPL matches to score 192 goals, giving him a ratio of 0.513 goals per game. Impressive but consider Larsson’s record of 174 SPL goals in 221 games. This gives Larsson a ratio of 0.78 goals per game. Boyd has played 153 more SPL games than Larsson and is a mere 18 goals ahead. Let’s look at games against the big two of Scottish football: Larsson hit 15 goals in 30 appearances against Rangers and his all-round contribution to the team in these games was immense. Boyd has scored 1 goal in over 30 games against Celtic for Kilmarnock and Rangers and as a ‘penalty box striker’ was often criticised for his work rate. Larsson was top SPL scorer in 5 of his six full seasons at Celtic. This is discounting season 1999-2000 when a serious leg break made him miss most of the season when he had already hit 12 goals in 13 games.

Let us now consider European competitions for here indeed is a tough testing ground for any striker with a Scottish Club. The standard is more demanding in the European arena and it takes a decent striker to find the net with regularity there. The statistics tell us that Henrik Larsson has scored 59 goals in 106 European games and his 35 goals in Europe for Celtic remains a record for a player at a British club side. Kris Boyd has scored 3 goals in 20 European appearances. International matches tell a similar tale with Larsson scoring 37 times in 106 games. Boyd has a decent record with 7 goals in 18 appearances. A closer look at who the goals were scored against tells an interesting tale. Boyd’s victims were Bulgara, the Faroes, Geogia, Lithuania and South Africa, Larsson has scored international goals against the likes of Italy, England, Croatia and France. He also has a medal for finishing 3rd at the 1994 World cup and indeed scored against Stoichkov’s talented Bulgaria team in the play-off.

In terms of honours outside of Scotland Larsson has won the following:

Holland: Cup winner 1994 and 1995

Spain: La Liga winner 2004-05 and 2005-06

Spanish Super Cup winner 2005

European Champions League winner 2006

England: Premier League winner 2007

Boyd had a brief spell in England with Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest scoring a creditable 12 goals in 37 appearances. He has not won any major honours outside of Scotland. Larsson’s best spell apart from the Celtic years was his impressive 19 goals in 58 games for Barcelona in what was at the time probably the best league in the world.

Career total goals for Larsson are an equally impressive 434 in 768 games which is over 1 goal every 2 games. Kris Boyd stands at present on 249 goals in 522 games in all competitions, the vast majority of these goals being scored in Scotland.  All of these hard facts undeniably prove that Henrk Larsson is a more prolific goal scorer. They are not laid out to demean Kris Boyd’s achievements which are considerable in the limited arena of Scottish football. However, few around Europe will know who Kris Boyd is while Larsson enjoys a decent reputation as a man who has scored in the World Cup finals, the European Championship finals, La Liga, the English Premierships and against the likes of Liverpool, Juventus and FC Porto in Europe. He is also credited with being the player who turned the 2006 European Champions League final in Barcelona’s favour after coming on as a substitute with his team trailing Arsenal.

All of that apart, Larsson was more of an all-round team player than Boyd and having watched both over the years, I would say Henrik is one of the best players I have ever seen in the Hoops. Boyd was a very useful striker at SPL level although his goals tended to come against lesser opposition. His paltry goals record against Celtic and in European competition suggests he was not in Larsson’s class. That is not to disrespect him but merely to point out what the career statistics tell us.

If all of these facts were laid before a jury I think I could say with confidence that they would find that Henrik Larsson was a better and more prolific scorer of goals than Kris Boyd. He has demonstrated that he can score goals at the very highest level of European and world football. Anyone who knows the game knows that it’s no contest.

As Basil Fawlty would say…. ‘it’s ‘bleedin’ obvious.’

I rest my case.