Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Roaster


 
Roaster

I had one of those strange conversations which occur from time to time this week. I was sitting on a crowded bus minding my own business when noisy man got on. Noisy man was one of those people who talked at twice the volume required for the context and seemed to want the whole bus to hear every thought passing through his head. Dressed in an ill-fitting tracksuit and dirty white trainers, he glanced around the bus. He looked more annoying than dangerous and confirmed this by saying in a loud voice to no one in particular, ‘Aw day ticket over four quid? Think we’re aw millionaires?’ He then scanned the lower deck looking for a seat. The woman across from me slipped her handbag onto the empty space beside her with practiced ease and without even looking up from her Metro. Alas, noisy man wandered up the aisle and plonked himself beside me. ‘Some weather eh? Aw four seasons in wan day!’ he said to me his breath hinting that a fair amount of tonic wine had been imbibed recently. I tried to keep the conversation at a minimum but he was up for a gab and had that annoying habit of poking you with his elbow when making a point. ‘Here, that Nicola Sturgeon’s a nippy sweetie eh?’ he said, bumping me again, ‘Widnae like tae go hame tae her wi the wages opened.’ He then proceeded to laugh as if he was the funniest man on earth. Of course the rest of the bus smirked away as they could enjoy the show whilst yours truly had to interact with noisy man and they didn’t.

He then started talking about football and at this most of the men on the bus tuned in to hear if his opinions were as off the wall as he sounded. ‘Ye like fitbaw big man? That wiz a liberty what happened tae Rangers eh?  Aw they Karflicks laughing like fuck when we wur relegated.’ Like a fool I took the bait and replied, ‘They weren’t relegated they were liquidated and the new club started where all new clubs should; in the bottom league.’  Half the bus smiled a little at this and half had troubled looks on their faces. ‘Wit?’ replied noisy man, ‘You saying Rangers died?’ I was in too deep to back out and replied, ‘The facts don’t lie Buddy.’ The look on his unshaven face changed and he uttered one of those quintessentially Glaswegian sentences, ‘Well fuck me wi the jaggy end o’ a pineapple, we’ve got a real roaster here.’ As I mulled over being called a ‘roaster’ there was an audible snigger from a few on the bus as he continued his diatribe. ’Bet yer a karflick?’ he went on as if that was somehow pertinent to the debate. My silence seemed to antagonise him a little and he muttered, ‘A club canny die!’ as if it were an unwritten truth. ‘Third Lanark died.’ I replied. He was silent for a moment as if confused by my logic, ‘Aye but Rangers wur bought by new guys and the SFA said they wur the same club.’ I was not inclined to go into the convoluted machinations of the SFA as they bent over backwards for the newco so I said simply, ‘If you want to believe that then that’s fine but I don’t.’ Noisy man then looked around the crowded bus, ‘Anybody getting aff coz I canny sit beside this roaster any mer?’ There was more quiet laughter as he looked at me, ‘Nae offence big man but yer aff yer rocker.’ He got up with the air of one who has been insulted and sauntered down the aisle before taking a sharp right turn and heading upstairs. At that point the bus hit a bump in the road and he half fell back into the lower section again much to the amusement of a few of the passengers. As he headed upstairs again I looked out the window happy to have peace restored.

The bus reached the city centre and I got off. As I prepared to continue on foot I heard a banging sound and looking up saw noisy man thumping the upstairs window. I smiled as he shouted out at me, ‘Roaster, yer a fuckin roaster!’ The bus pulled off and I watched him disappear into his alternative reality.

It’s some town old Glasgow.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Heart of a Lion


Heart of a lion
I once watched Jimmy Johnstone utterly destroy a full back in a game at Celtic Park. Over and over in those torrid 90 minutes, he jinked left or right, dropped the shoulder and was gone. To his credit the full back tried to play him within the rules and was the first to shake his hand when the final whistle sounded. For Jimmy the skills he was blessed with made him a target for many less scrupulous defenders. In Old Firm games the Rangers defenders seemed to foul him on a rotational basis until the referee eventually booked someone. In the more physical game of the 1960s and 70s the offence had to be fairly serious to merit a booking. Jimmy would often be left in a heap by some of the hammer throwing types who liked to think they were tough guys but every time he’d get up and demand the ball before running at them again. The punishment he took in his career was immense but the wee warrior never knew the meaning of giving up.

As a lad, I watched from the Jungle on a spring evening in 1974 as the thugs masquerading as football players from Atletico Madrid singled Jimmy out for some of the most brutal treatment I’ve ever seen a player receive. Knee high challenges, two footed lunges and body checks left Jimmy on the turf in obvious distress but once the trainer had rubbed him down with the ubiquitous ‘magic sponge’ he was on his feet and back at them again. The Atletico team had obviously done their homework and knew he was a real danger to them and stopped him in the most callous manner time and time again. After the game, which saw 3 players from Atletico sent off, Jimmy was assaulted at the tunnel and his team mates flew into the thugs from Madrid. Amid astonishing scenes, punches flew and the Police physically intervened to stop they mayhem. Dixie Deans recalls two police officers in the tunnel holding Argentinian player Ayala by the arms and inviting a couple of passing Celts to mete out some retribution. Dixie didn’t hold back and the Atletico player received some rough justice in the form of a few well-placed hooks.

Jimmy’s treatment at the hands of those other desperados, Racing Club of Argentina, was similarly shocking. Scythed to ground regularly in all three of those ill-fated ties, the wee man was on his feet and back for more. The spitting was often more infuriating to the Celtic players than the fouling and poor refereeing and Jimmy had to wash the saliva from his hair at half time. I once spoke to the late, great Bobby Murdoch about those ties and he said that the team were simply amazed at the punishment Jimmy took and the scant protection the referees game him in South America. By the time the third match came around, Bobby was adamant that Celtic would give some back to the thugs. Of course the game ended in a brutal farce as a weak Referee allowed it to descend into a chaotic battle. Again Jimmy was the target of some ugly challenges.

Anyone who watched video footage from that golden era of Scottish football can’t fail to be impressed by the skills of Jimmy Johnstone. His ball control and amazing balance allowed him to weave past defenders in that mesmerising way of his. He was the quintessential Scottish winger blessed with great talent but matched by his great heart. Few players took the punishment Jimmy did and came back for more. Yes, his temper got the better of him and on occasion he’d lash out at defenders who’d gone too far and be given his marching orders. In one old firm match he was fouled repeatedly by defenders with seeming impunity before one particularly rough tackle saw him react and he was off. Players from smaller clubs often verbal abuse to try to unsettle him and Bobby Lennox commented that Rangers players seldom used foul language towards Celts but some players at other clubs did use sectarian terms to try to upset players like Jimmy.

Jimmy Johnstone was not the wee waif some folk imagine. He worked hard on his physique and was at his peak a solid, muscular little athlete. He loved playing for Celtic and Jock Stein’s man management skills ensured that he managed over 500 games in the Hoops. His off field issues are well documented and the drinking culture of the time didn’t help him but to see him in full flight was to see a true great of the game. Willie Waddell, Rangers manager gave an insight into the difference in philosophy between Celtic and Rangers in those days when he said….

"Rangers like the big strong, powerful fellows, with a bit of strength and solidity in the tackle, rather than the frivolous, quick moving stylists like Jimmy Johnstone, small, tiptoe-through-the-tulips type of players who excite people.’’

Perhaps he rued those words on occasion as Jimmy saved many of his greatest displays for games with Rangers. His old adversary John Grieg who faced him on numerous occasions was more respectful…

“In terms of his playing ability he was as good as any player I came up against. His was a special and unique talent. From a Rangers perspective, although our support always wanted the team to better their rivals, they appreciate talent. I know that in the Rangers support of a certain generation, there was a real appreciation for the talent of Jimmy Johnstone - he was that good.”

Jimmy won 9 league titles, 4 Scottish cups, 5 league cups and of course the European cup while at Celtic. He mesmerised defenders from Madrid to Motherwell, from Leeds to Lisbon. Serious connoisseurs of the game recognised his genius and knew he was one of the greats of the game. His tally of just 23 Scotland caps is hard to explain even in those days when Scotland was blessed with a multitude of good players. However Jimmy would probably be delighted with a career which brought such glittering prizes to his beloved Celtic. He once said of Lisbon…

“Picture it, who were we? We were nobody, just a bunch of guys. Here we were, in Lisbon, playing against the mighty Inter Milan. If you remember, they had won the European Cup and the World Championship twice. I'm proud that I was part of the greatest club in the world. To be the first British team to win the European Cup, but more so to be part of the greatest Celtic team ever, that's something else, isn't it?”

In memory’s view he drifts past defenders, jinking this way and that as his adoring fans roared him on. Socks round his ankles, no shin guards worn he’d race towards the opposition with no fear of what they might do to him. When it came off and the ball was in the net he’d often turn to the Celtic support with that smile of his and punch the air. We knew he was one of us and if he wasn’t wearing that famous shirt with such distinction we knew he’d be on the terraces cheering Celtic on and that’s why we loved him.

Rest in peace our Lord of the wing.

 


Thursday, 23 April 2015

The man in the chair


 
 
The Man in the Chair

For all her eight years there were tantrums and tears

when her Daddy set off for the game

‘Why can’t you take me?’ she had said with a plea

Till one day he said, ‘It’s time that you came.’

 

Eyes wide with wonder, at last she was there

She looked at her Daddy and smiled,

‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘ who is that man in the chair?’

He knelt and said ‘listen my child…’

 

A long time ago, long before we were born

The children went hungry at night,

Some younger than you had jobs they must do

Their lives were a struggle and fight,

 

Some went to school with no shoes on their feet

Some didn’t go there at all,

Some walked the streets to beg those they’d meet

Some worked in the mills or great halls

 

And it tore at the hearts of Mothers who’d say

‘Things will be better tomorrow.’

Though they’d work and they’d pray they knew the next day

Would repeat all the struggles and sorrow

 

Then that man in chair decided to act

He started this fine football team

The money they made fed children each day

and things weren’t as bad as they’d been

 

So you see my sweet child, that man sitting there

did good things a long time ago

We remember each day, if we’re passing this way

we must all help his kindness to grow

 

Her face deep in thought she knew she must not

Forget the lesson she learned there that day

‘So the man sitting there reminds us to care?’

Her Father nodded, ‘That was always his way.’

 

The child looked around at a roar from the ground

as the wind blew her long auburn hair,

She let go of his hand and she walked to the man

Who gazed at her from his great chair

 

Then she knelt to the ground as the people around

stopped to watch this little child pray

She said, ‘Never again will we let heartless men

see the children go hungry each day’

 

Then she stood with a smile as he walked to his child

Took her hand and with infinite care,

They walked to the ground and the child looked around

and whispered ‘Thank you’ to the man in the chair.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Conspiracy Theory


Conspiracy Theory

The President knew that in the morning he’d be entering hostile territory as he headed south towards Hampden. This was Dallas country and his odour lingered in the huge BT Stand like a sweaty jock strap. Little did the new President know that forces were already moving against him and his dream of leading his club to another Treble. Of course the Mob wanted him stopped in his tracks. If anyone was going to win Trebles it was the old established Mafiosi who despite languishing in prison after financial scandals brought them down still thought they were the people.  Their hatred had smouldered, eating them up for three long years as they bummed around the flop houses of the lower leagues. Then there were the politicians, those who sat in their offices on the fourth floor dreaming dreams of how to reinstate the mob to their former glory. They didn’t want some uppity Norwegian with his Green gang muscling in on their territory. This was Hampden, their stamping ground and no Micks would be lifting trebles here if they could help it. But who would do the deed and how could they portray their actions as the work of a lone nut?

Lee Harvey McLean was known for shooting his mouth off around Dallas land.  He had built a reputation as a small time fixer who could make results change by simply looking the other way. Rumour had it he had a whistle with no pea in it just in case the Green gang wanted a penalty. He had a small group of acolytes around him most notably 'Bumbling Billy' the Linesman and Blind Bert the fourth official. McLean’s phone jarred him out of a dream filled sleep in which he was frantically throwing red cards at a huge hooped monster advancing on him. A voice on the other end of the line said simply, ‘McLean, operation Treble Buster is on… Stop the Micks!’ The phone clicked off and there was silence. He knew that in the morning he’d get the call to travel with his gang to Dallas land and do the job he loved more than any other.

Most of you will recall where you were that fateful day as the President’s motorcade wound its way past the Dealey Plaza Ballroom and on to Dallas Land.  Vice President Collins, who knew Dallas land well, filled the President in on a few basics. ‘There are a lotta rednecks around here who would never back the Greens but security will make sure things go well. Relax and enjoy the day.’ The motorcade pulled into the huge bulk of the Shug Dallas Building and the President got his team ready for the challenges ahead. It would be a big day if they played their cards right. Watching them arrive were mob figures Camp Bell ‘the EBT man’ and a small time compliance enforcer known only as ‘Vinnie.’ Their eyes met and the EBT man nodded, it was going down today. The pieces were falling into place and nothing could halt their plan now. The Micks didn’t know what was going to hit them.

As the President took his place of honour in front of an adoring crowd he had no idea that his dreams would soon be in tatters. Things began well when his Minister for Dutch Affairs scored early on. But as the clock ticked towards 1.30pm Lee Harvey McLean strode onto the scene to weave his spell. No one was quite sure what they saw happen that day but thankfully Abraham Zanutter, a Green Party Camera man caught the act in all its foulness on his state of the art iPhone. What is showed was truly awful...firstly, a Presidential Secret Service man known only as ‘The Thumb’ and looking conspicuous in his new rug, headed the ball towards goal. One of the Mob’s bag men, a three time loser known as the ‘Meek King’ threw up his arm and punched the ball clear. It was then we saw Lee Harvey McLean in all his masterful wickedness. He didn’t call for the spot kick or flash the red card, he just looked the other way. His enforcer ‘Blind Bert’ would later claim a goat had obscured his line of vision. The President looked on in horror as his dream died in that instant. He knew then he was in Dallas land and there was no way he’d be leaving with a victory…

The following day the Mob called in a few favours and the ‘Bleating Micks’ stories did the rounds in the press. Lee Harvey McLean was spirited away but the Zanutter film opened the eyes of many who demanded an enquiry. It was then Vinnie stepped in to say that the one known as the ‘Meek King’ would not be welcome in Dallas land on cup final day. His Capo, the erudite and eloquent John ‘Yogi’ Hughes’ stated that the Meek King was ‘Just a Patsy, a prawn in a bigger game, ken?’ As the Green Party supporters viewed the Zanutter film they saw the act in all its glorious shamefulness. One commented that ‘It was plain to see that the Meek King’s arm goes back and to the left… back and to the left… back and to the left…’

We all remember where we were on that fateful day when the Presidents dreams lay shattered on the green turf of Dallas land. Vice President Collins, dressed in a fetching pill box hat, said through his tears, ‘My fellow Tims, ask not what your club can do for you, ask what you can do for your club, for we have been royally screwed this sad day.’ 

It is rumoured that an SFA commission will be set up to investigate the heinous crime but only after their first commission looking into the death of Robert the Bruce finishes their report. Few have faith in them as their previous work on the death of Rangers reported back that they were in fact still alive and living in Normandy with a man called Charles.
Conspiracy theories abound and fill the void as millions ask....why?

 

 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

A familiar feeling


 
A familiar feeling

Football is the most fluent, unpredictable and often controversial sport of them all. So much of what happens on the field can be decided by an odd bounce of the ball or a referee making a split second decision as play rages at high speed. The difference between winning and losing is often wafer thin and for some fans it can be hard to take when the referee’s call doesn’t go your way.

As a Celtic supporter of many years I have seen my share of mystifying decisions from referees. The 1970 Scottish Cup Final for instance saw Celtic lose 3-1 to Aberdeen in the most frustrating manner. Three big decisions went against Celtic that day and cost them the cup. Firstly a point blank cross from McKay struck Bobby Murdoch on the upper arm and despite having is arms by his side the Referee gave a penalty. Then Bobby Clark the Aberdeen goalkeeper dropped the ball as he was about to kick it from hand and Lennox rolled it into the net. The referee  awarded a foul to Aberdeen despite there being no contact between the players. Then as Lennox raced clear into the box, Martin Buchan scythed him to the ground and Mr Davidson waved play on much to the fury of the huge Celtic support in the 108,000 crowd. Jock Stein’s withering comments to the official after the game made it clear what he thought of his performance that day. Jock was no fool, he experienced in his own career and life the sort of hatred that some held towards Celtic and was never slow to defend the club. Bias against Celtic from certain officials was a reality in those times.

Most Celtic fans could give you a large list of games lost in which the officials made calls which were to say the least dubious and directly affected the outcome. In recent years controversial refereeing decisions in the Scottish Semi-final with Hearts and the League Cup Final with Kilmarnock come to mind. When you strip away the layers of disappointment, the searching for a scapegoat and perhaps a lingering folk memory of unfair treatment meted out to Celtic and its community over the decades, what remains? Are we seriously trying to tell the sporting world that there are dark forces working against Celtic? Of course the age old cry of ‘Paranoia’ will resurface as will the ‘it’ll level itself out over the season’ argument.

The performance of referee, Steven McLean and his assistants at Hampden Park this afternoon was to say the least poor. The match turned on a decision he made just before half time when Griffiths goal bound header was deliberately punched clear by Meekings. The reaction of the Celtic players in the box was instantaneous as they roared ‘hand ball’ in unison. To their utter dismay the referee waved play on. With Caley a goal down at that point, losing a player and a penalty could have been fatal to their chances. The referee was in perfect position to call it, the assistant referee was 2 yards away from the incident and yet they didn’t see the hand ball? When you think that the linesman also had a view of the incident are we really to believe that 3 individuals with a triangulation of views didn’t see Meekings punch the ball? The feeling of injustice was compounded after the break when Craig Gordon was harshly but, given the current rules, rightly sent off. As one fan near me commented, ‘Aye, ye saw that wan ya bastard.’  We should recognise that Celtic did not play well today and the plaudits should go to Caley for an organised and determined display but as the Celtic fans left Hampden there was a familiar feeling of injustice.

No doubt the radio phone in shows and press will be full of Celtic fans complaining about today’s refereeing blunder but none of the pundits will ever admit that Celtic get a raw deal from officialdom. Far less will they admit that the mainstream media has been less than even handed in its dealings with Celtic. We’ll be told that we’re over reacting to a poor display or that officials are human and make mistakes. However, we live in a society where referees have been forced to resign for lying about decisions made in Celtic matches. We also saw Mr Dallas leave after sending an anti-Catholic image in an email. We’ve seen Mr Farry hold up the registration of Jorge Cadete for 6 weeks at a crucial point in the season when sending the fax required to clear him to play would have taken 10 minutes. More tellingly, 2 internal inquiries cleared Farry before Fergus McCann brought in his QC and destroyed their case in 5 minutes. We’ve seen a Celtic player banned for diving while others are ignored. Neil Lennon was banned for swearing when it’s audible from players and managers at most games every week. We also see organised deafness from the SFA when thousands sing the Famine song and Billy Boys at matches. We live in a society where a retired referee said at a Rangers function that he was proud to say Rangers never lost a match he officiated at. This is Scotland where a player choosing to play football for Ireland results in him being abused all over the country. In this atmosphere it’s easy to think that some just don’t like Celtic and all it represents but can we say this affects the decisions of referees on the field of play?

In a fluent, fast football match the referee is the arbiter of the rules. His decisions are the only ones which matter and his interpretation of what occurred on the field at a given point are the only one which counts. He makes split second decisions in the heat of the moment and without the benefit of replays from various angles and it is not an easy job. One slip of concentration can mean missing an important incident. Today the referee was perfectly placed to call the Meekings’ hand ball and I remain mystified about why he failed to award the penalty and send Meekings off as the rules stipulate. There are three possible explanations for the referee’s decision to wave play on…

·        He judged the ball struck Meekings on the head or body

·        He judged that the contact was ‘ball to hand’ (although that is unlikely given Meekings arm movement towards the ball)  

·        He saw it and didn’t award the penalty for reasons known to him.

 If the latter was the case then we might as well give up on the game right now. These recurring ‘honest mistakes’ suggest the training of our referees isn’t all it could be. In an age where most matches are covered by a plethora of cameras it would be highly difficult to deliberately give important calls against a certain club but in those 50-50 calls in key games could an individual lean one way or another? Few sensible people doubt that Celtic has been on the wrong end of some very dubious treatment in the past and the feeling that certain factions within Scottish football detested the club and all it represented was justifiable. It is sad that the echo of those less enlightened times is still heard when the calls go against the club. After today’s events, the so called ‘Paranoia’ will lead some to conclude the anti-Celtic bias still goes on. A 30 second break for an official to look at TV pictures would have seen justice done today but that is too sensible for Scottish football which blunders on.  The football authorities should also let their officials explain themselves and if necessary say, ‘Yeh, hands up I got that one wrong.’ Failing to do so just leads to the sort of suspicion and dark mutterings we are hearing now.

Scotland is rightly being praised currently for its political awakening and the openness of its citizens but in terms of transparency in football, it remains in the dark ages.

 

Friday, 17 April 2015

A shot at redemption



 A shot at redemption
In Greek Mythology, the legend of Achilles has it that he was dipped into the river Styx by his mother Thetis in order to make him invulnerable. His heel wasn't covered by the water and he was later killed by an arrow wound to his heel. In modern terms the phrase ‘Achilles heel’ is used as a metaphor for a deadly weakness which in spite of overall strength can lead to a person’s downfall.

This week we saw a blistering performance from Leigh Griffiths which blew away a solid, if unimaginative, Kilmarnock side. Until his arrival on the field Celtic were struggling to overcome a defence which relied on numbers and muscle to keep the Hoops at bay. Celtic didn’t help their cause by over-elaboration and an unwillingness to shoot at goal. On one occasion in the first half the cumbersome John Guidetti had a clear chance to shoot but instead chose to hesitate and dribble the ball away from goal much to the frustration of the crowd. We all like to see beautiful and intricate goals but at the business end of the season the main job is to win matches. Kilmarnock’s opening goal owed much to a wicked deflection and was scarcely deserved given their defensive intentions. A few fans were worried that Celtic would struggle to win a game they had, in terms of possession (73%) controlled from start to finish. In terms of goal attempts it was 18-2 in Celtic’s favour. However, as Barcelona found out in 2012 the only statistic that matters is the final score.

Leigh Griffiths arrival on the hour saw Celtic become a much more purposeful and pacey side. He was a blur of movement at times and the Kilmarnock defence was being pulled all over the place. His three goals were technically excellent and his positioning very impressive. Things are looking good for the striker on the field although his off field behaviour remains problematic at times. During his time at Hibs he was banned for gesturing at opposition supporters and more recently he has made unwise comments on social media. He is also currently being tried under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act for events in a pub before a Hearts v Hibs game. Chanting about ‘Hearts going bust’ is standard football banter although as a professional player he should be more sensible. More serious though is the allegation of chanting ‘Rudi Skacel is a f*cking refugee’ in a bar full of Hibs fans. In the age of video technology any involvement in such things is simply asking for trouble. It should be noted that Griffiths denies the allegation and others have noted that the inference that such chanting was ‘likely to incite public disorder’ in a pub full of Hibs fans was unlikely.

Playing his first senior game at just 16 for Livingston has meant that he has had to take a lot on board at a young age. The praise and adoration of his own club’s fans is balanced by the vitriol and abuse he gets from others. He needs to rise above it and not engage with the less cerebral elements who abuse him in stadiums and online. Griffiths was most unwise when he reacted to a jibe on twitter by posting a message saying 'F*ck off back to your own country ya clown.' He could learn from Irish international player, James MacLean, who gave up on twitter after being drawn into disputes with the loyalist fringe over his decision not to wear a poppy on his Sunderland shirt. Such trolls are not interesting in hearing about another perspective but merely want to abuse those with a different world view from theirs. As MacLean learned, you cannot reason with unreasonable people.

Leigh is 24 now and entering his peak years as a player and it is time he demonstrated maturity and a willingness to learn from past mistakes. He is a Celtic player and the club rightly demands high standards from those who wear the Hoops. As a club initially founded by refugees and rightly proud of our open and inclusive ethos, Celtic no doubt made it clear to Leigh that he should think very carefully about his public actions. If he wants to know what sort of club Celtic is he only had to look down the Celtic Way after the Kilmarnock game and see the generosity of spirit among the club’s supporters.

I hope Leigh goes on to score many goals for Celtic and that he manages to cut out his more foolish off field antics. Some Celtic supporters expressed their concerns when he signed for the club but I’m of the opinion that we are all due a shot at redemption. He is undoubtedly a very good footballer on his day and we were all guilty of some youthful indiscretions in our time but he can’t allow events off the field to become his Achilles heel. I think he knows that now.


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Many heroes but few legends


 
Many heroes but few legends

Big Hutchy was troubled as the mini bus sped up the M6 towards Scotland. Those not asleep talked in low tones about the events of the night before. Losing a match was one thing but the violence which occurred after it was little short of disgraceful. There was a muffled cheer as they sped past the sign on the M74 which read ‘Welcome to Scotland.’  Hutchy shouted to the driver, ‘Stop at the next service station, will ye pal?’ The driver nodded, ‘No problem mate as long as it’s not for drink. The cops are still checking buses.’ Hutchy nodded, ‘Naw it’s no fur bevy mate.’ A few miles further on they pulled in to one of those nondescript service stations which dot the UK motorway system and specialise in ripping off drivers with extortionate prices. Hutchy disappeared from the mini bus for a few minutes as his fellow fans waited impatiently. ‘Where’s he off tae?’ asked one fan. ‘Nae idea but he better move his arse, I want tae get up the road.’ said another. Eventually big Hutchy reappeared holding a huge bunch of flowers and clambered back onto the mini bus. ‘You got a burd waiting fur ye?’ grinned a sleepy eyed fellow fan. ‘Naw,’ another butted in, ‘he never asked his burd for her permission tae go tae the match and that’s his apology.’ Hutchy shook his head and replied in a loud voice which stirred the sleeping fans, ’Listen up, this is something ah want yeez aw tae hear…’

Two hours later the mini bus slowed and stopped on the London Road at the corner of Kerrydale Street. There were already hundreds of people milling about in front of Celtic Park in the bright evening sunshine. Hutchy had discussed who was coming with him as they neared Glasgow and the three volunteers stepped from the mini bus, blinking in the sunshine. Heads turned in the direction of the four friends who made their way up Kerrydale Street towards the stadium. Hutchy held the flowers in front of him and made his way to the huge display of football strips, flowers and scarves which had grown around the front of the stadium. They stopped near the statue of Brother Walfrid and Hutchy laid the flowers with care on the ground beside a large picture of the man these tributes had been laid out for. Hutchy stood and closed his eyes for a few seconds as his friends looked on, feeling a little awkward. One of them took off his scarf and tied it to the barrier in front of him. He glanced around and saw that there were literally thousands of tributes around the front of the stadium which formed a huge green and white arc. ‘Jeez, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ he mumbled.

Hutchy opened his eyes and bowed briefly in respect before saying, ‘Right lads, let’s head back tae the bus.’ as he led his three friends back down Kerrydale Street there was a smattering of applause. Hutchy glanced around wondering if some Celtic players or celebrity had shown up but quickly realised that the applause was for him and his friends. An older man reached across and shook his hand, ‘Good on ye lads,’  Hutchy nodded, ‘Tommy was one of the best.’ Another fan, a bearded young man bedecked in the Hoops, patted his back, ‘Respect, mate.’ he said. They reached the bus where twenty other fans sat in silence. ‘Right driver, hit the road,’ said Hutchy. They pulled off into the light traffic and headed west towards Bridgeton. One finally spoke, ‘I wasn’t sure about this Hutchy but ye were right mate. Some things are bigger than fitbaw.’

You will have deduced by now those supporters who laid their tributes to Tommy Burns in the spring of 2008 were Rangers fans returning from the crushing disappointment of losing the UEFA cup final in riot torn Manchester. They walked through hundreds of grieving Celtic supporters in their Rangers shirts to show their respect for one of the good guys. It is a mark of how Tommy Burns was perceived and respected throughout the Scottish game that they stopped off on their way home to pay their tributes.

In the polarised and often bitter world of Scottish football we are all guilty at times of stereotyping our adversaries and such acts of humanity remind us that no support has a monopoly of decency. The passing of a transparently good man like Tommy Burns was of course marked with the respect and grief one would expect from the Celtic family. Such though was Tommy’s character and personality, fans of just about every club in the land also paid tribute to a good man taken from his family far too soon. Tales of many acts of kindness, great and small, are still told, particularly in the east end of Glasgow and I have recounted some on this blog on occasion. No one who met Tommy could be mistaken for a moment that he was anything other than a thoroughly decent human being. Often he needed no words as he led by example. Consider what some of those who knew him best said about him…

“I loved Tommy Burns. You meet some people and you like them, but Tommy was someone that I loved. I got to realise that during the early 1980s, although I wouldn’t have told him that. But he was just one of those people that you just can’t help but love’’.  (Danny McGrain)

Tommy and I came into the team at the same time and played for all those years together. That team during the 1970s and ‘80s had great bonds. We were fans on the pitch as much as anything else and as far as Celtic Football Club was concerned, Tommy wore his heart on his sleeve. He played for the jersey and you could not find a more committed player. (Roy Aitken)

"I was a Celtic supporter growing up. My first appointment was by Tommy Burns. As a human being he was incredible & I learnt a lot from him."
(Brendan Rodgers)

“HE lived the dream of supporting Celtic, playing for them, coaching them and ultimately managing them and I suspect that if I asked any Celtic fan of a certain vintage what brand of football they have enjoyed most in the past 30 years, the majority would answer the type played under Tam. Tam going into management was a natural progression but he was never the type who craved a flamboyant lifestyle, out on the town eating in flash restaurants and being noticed. That was never his way. Tam would rather be at home with his wife and his family.’’ (Gerry Collins)

Men like Tommy Burns don’t come along too often and he epitomised all that was best about Celtic Football Club. Yes, he had a temper when he thought his team were being wronged and saw the red card on a few occasions as a player but he played with a fire and commitment to Celtic and the fans loved him for that. His Celtic team in the mid-1990s played some of the best attacking football since the Stein era and he would not compromise what he saw as the ‘Celtic way’ of playing even when more street wise operators like Walter Smith mugged his team for the points. But Tommy was more than a player and a Manager at Celtic. He was symbol of what the club aspired to be: passionate and committed but also sporting, open and charitable. It was important to him that the club continued to be a force for good in an increasingly selfish world.

His legacy at Celtic Park is secure but I’m sure he is most pleased that his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of thousands of ordinary Celtic fans. Any discussion about the most important figures in Celtic history will always see Walfrid, Maley, Stein or McCann mentioned. Any discussion on the most revered figures at the club will always start with Tommy because he truly was a fan on the field who fought for Celtic till he had no more to give. We have had many heroes down the years but few legends. Tommy is one of the select few to join that latter group.

I’ll leave the last words with the man himself who said on the occasion of his last game for Celtic in 1989….

‘'I wanted to go out with a smile on my face and not a tear in my eye, so I got all of my crying out of the way during the warm-up. I ran about the pitch for 20 minutes with tears running down my cheeks because I knew I would never wear a Celtic jersey again.'’

That’s what it meant to men like Tommy Burns and that’s why we loved him.

Rest in peace Tam, you were one in a million.

 


Sunday, 12 April 2015

Never easy but always worthwhile


 
Never easy but always worthwhile
It was the spring of 2003 and for Celtic fans all things seemed possible. The team’s success in Europe had seen people sit up and take notice of Martin O’Neil’s team. Teams of real quality were sent tumbling out of Europe by a Celtic team playing with vigour and style. Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart and Liverpool had been dispatched by a Celtic side which seemed to fear no one. The disappointment of losing the League Cup Final when a Hartson penalty miss and another ‘honest mistake’ cost Celtic the game was put behind the team as they faced up to Boavista Oporto. The stodgy, defensive Portuguese made no friends at Celtic Park with a display of play acting and time wasting. Nerves seemed to get to Celtic who missed a penalty and scored an own goal as tense game ended 1-1. The return game in Portugal was seen as a very difficult one for Celtic to win given the events at Celtic Park.

Celtic set off for Portugal on the back of a 1-2 defeat at Tynecastle in which the team looked tired. Perhaps the fixture congestion and tension of a tight league run in and European demands were taking their toll. 3000 Celtic fans were present in the small Boavista stadium with hundreds of thousands watching on TV screens around the world. This game was possibly the most important Celtic match since the European Cup Final of 1970. Celtic were within touching distance of a European final for the first time in 33 years. The task facing them was daunting as Boavista were a tidy but essentially negative team. They didn’t need to score at home and this would make any chance Celtic had of scoring the away goal they required all the more difficult.

The streets of Glasgow were eerily quiet on that bright April night in 2003 as most of the country settled in front of their TV sets to watch the drama unfold. . The game got underway and in homes and Bars all over the world Celtic fans were put through an emotional mixer as Boavista settled into their defensive shell. The play acting and time wasting resumed and as the first half wore on it appeared to many that Celtic were not playing with the energy and zest they had exhibited throughout their impressive European run. . The Portuguese side did try to counter attack Celtic but not requiring a goal meant they seldom pushed many players forward. Half time arrived with nails bitten and nerves frayed among Celtic fans all over the world.

The second half saw more urgency from Celtic but the constant breaks in play as the Portuguese fell over at the slightest contact disrupted their flow. Some Celtic fans have told me they were feeling tremendous stress and frustration as the game reached those dramatic final stages. Just one goal would put Celtic into a European final and re-establish their reputation as a credible European team again after decades in the wilderness…and then in happened.

Those of you who watched that game will still recall the explosion of pent up emotion which occurred in the 83rd minute. Larsson played a pass towards John Hartson on the edge of the Boavista box. Defender Filipe Anunciacao saw the danger and slid in to intercept the pass. To his horror the ball rebounded back towards Larsson who got away one of his less impressive shots of a season which saw him hit over 40 goals. As we watch open mouthed the ball spun up and over the despairing hands of Goalkeeper Riccardo and into the net. I could hear the roars of joy and relief from houses around mine as Celtic fans shouted their heads off.  My own crowded living room was a scene of joyous chaos as we realised that Celtic were close, so close. We then had to endure a further ten minutes of play as Boavista finally realised that their time wasting was now working against them. A friend said to me later that it was all too much for him at that point and he left the house and paced the garden waiting on the final whistle. He missed the only scary moment when Agathe tackled a Boavista attacker in the box who proceeded to fall as if he had been shot. The Russian referee had obviously seen enough of their play acting and was unimpressed. He waved play on as we breathed a sigh of relief. Those last few seconds ticked away as we urged the Referee to end it and put us out of our misery. Then he blew for time and the dam broke, a flood of joy, emotion and pride poured over Celtic supporters all over the world. They had done it! They had finally reached another European Final and the players embraced with as much joy as any fan as what they had achieved sunk in.

That match in Portugal 12 years ago this month was perhaps the most tense football game I have ever witnessed. Celtic fans don’t just invest their time and money in the club, they invest their emotions and that match was absolute torture until the Referee blew his whistle to end it. It set up the legendary trip to Seville with all its bitter-sweet memories and Celtic fans displayed again that warmth and sportsmanship which marks them out.

Celtic achievements in that 2002-03 season are not recorded in the history books as significant. They gave so much at home and abroad and ended up empty handed. The League cup was lost after a linesman flagged a good John Hartson goal offside. The League was lost by a single goal on that gut wrenching final day at Rugby Park. However Celtic fans entered the summer of 2003 in buoyant mood as they knew that the team had been so close and given so much. Martin O’Neil promised to win their title back in 2004 and he did. A goalless start at Dunfermline was followed by an astonishing run of 25 consecutive victories in the SPL which saw them blast all opposition away.

But that sultry night in Porto remains for me one of those iconic moments as a Celtic fan when the team saw the prize before them and simply refused to give up. The fans who went through an emotional roller coaster that evening were finally rewarded when Larsson broke the Portuguese with his timely goal. As Fergus McCann once said…

‘It’s never easy being a Celt but it’s always worthwhile.’
 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

My last love...


 
My last love

As I joined in the thunderous chorus of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ with around 60,000 other Celts at the home game with Juventus in 2013, I couldn’t help notice the variety of images and symbols modern Celtic fans utilise. There was a smattering of Scottish, Irish, Basque, Antifa and Palestinian flags as well as a variety of Celtic banners. Within my line of view there were scarves exhibiting everything from Jimmy Johnstone and James Connolly to Che Guevara. The vast majority though were simply the green and white bar scarves of Celtic. A young man in front of me held up a flag showing Pope Benedict and emblazoned with the words ‘Our God Reigns.’ Not something I would take to a football game but that’s his choice.

Identity is a complicated and multi layered concept and no one can deny that Celtic Football Club has its roots in the Catholic community resident in the west of Scotland in the late Victorian era. The club was of course founded by a Marist Brother to help raise funds to feed the impoverished children he saw around him every day in the areas streets and schools. Not all of those Catholics resident in Glasgow’s east end were of Irish extraction, indeed the Bridgeton area, often associated today with Orangeism, was one of the settlement areas for displaced Catholic Highlanders and many of the children attending Walfrid’s Sacred Heart Primary School would have been the offspring of these Highlanders. From 1872-1918 Faith schools such as the Sacred Heart remained outside the state system as the 1872 Education Act prescribed Religious instruction which was interpreted as being Protestant in nature. The Catholic population thus paid rates for over 45 years which helped fund schools which their conscience would not let them use. This injustice continued until the 1918 Education Act finally brought the Catholic schools into the state sector.

It is to Celtic’s credit in the polarised world of the late 19th Century that the club decided from earliest times not to become an exclusive organisation such as Hibernian FC with its strong links to the temperance movement and the Catholic Young Men’s Society. Hibs faced the same sort of prejudice which Celtic would later encounter and on one occasion were denied entry to the Scottish League on the grounds that they were an Irish club and not a Scottish one. Celtic naturally looked within its own community to put together that first team which took the field in May 1888. In the days before professionalism, players were enticed away from clubs such as Hibs and Renton by the use of what were clearly illegal inducements given the amateur status of the game in those days. If Walfrid is the club’s spiritual father, John Glass was the club’s midwife who ensured it was born safely and thrived in its infancy. He had the skills and contacts to ensure the best players made their way to Celtic Park to throw their lot in with the new club. That new club was pragmatic enough to know that they would be stuck in a limiting ghetto if they didn’t open the doors to any who had the skills and personality to wear their colours.

According to the excellent book ‘The Celtic, Glasgow Irish and the Great War: The Gathering Storms,’ Celtic tried to sign a non-Catholic player in September 1888. This is a clear indication that even in the stuffy religious atmosphere of 1880s Scotland Celtic would be a club open to all. Willie Maley who served Celtic for over 50 years from its inception was never ashamed of the club’s Catholic roots but was equally proud of the fact that the club unlike others was not judging players on their religious affiliations. He said in his book, ‘The Story of Celtic’ (1939)…

"Much has been made in certain quarters about our religion, but for forty-eight years we have played a mixed team, and some of the greatest Celts we have had did not agree with us in our religious beliefs, although we have never at any time hidden what these are. Men of the type of McNair, Hay, Lyon, Buchan, Cringan, the Thomspons, or Paterson soon found out that broadmindedness which is the real stamp of the good Christian existed to its fullest at Celtic Park, where a man was judged by his football alone."

Personally, I could not envisage a Celtic which was not open to players of all faiths and none. From John Thomson to Kenny Dalglish, from Jock Stein to Danny McGrain we have seen club legends who have come to Celtic from all sorts of backgrounds and grown as Celts. In many cases they came to develop a real affinity and love for the club. Jock Stein, perhaps one of the greatest Celts of all, once famously said…

“Unlike many other Celts, I cannot claim that Celtic was my first love … but I can say that it will be my last love.”

This willingness to embrace players from all walks of life led to Celtic’s support becoming more mixed and cosmopolitan. Some came to support Celtic because they liked the style of football or were influenced by the friendliness of many Celtic fans. Others, such as a few friends I know from the Scottish-Asian community, follow Celtic because they identified with a club founded itself by immigrants. My maternal grandfather came from a staunch Orange family and would actually be beaten up by his brothers for following Celtic. He told that they once found his Celtic scarf hidden in the wardrobe and burned it on the coal fire as he watched. He would climb out of the window and make his way to Celtic Park to watch McGrory and John Thomson play.

It irks me somewhat when people describe Celtic as the ‘Catholic club’ of Glasgow when the club has clearly been playing mixed teams from its earliest years. Such a description denies the fact that the club knowingly chose not to embrace exclusivity as some others did. Such lazy labels are also used by some to ‘sectarianize’ Celtic and drag it into the bigoted mire which others wallow in. Yes, the majority of the club’s support is drawn from that founding Scottish-Irish community which was at least culturally Catholic. Today though as the influence of all the main churches wanes, fans are drawn from all walks of life and the vast majority would not want to see Celtic as anything other than the open, inclusive club it is today.

The Irish Folk Band, the Wolfe Tones once wrote a song celebration the Protestants who fought and often died for Irish freedom.  It contains the lyric…

So here's to those brave Protestant Men,

who gave their lives to free our land,

All the people they sang their praises then

for the brave United Irishmen…’

When I hear that song I often think of the many splendid Celts who played their hearts out for the club from its earliest years. Many of them didn’t come from Celtic backgrounds or have any connection at all to the club before walking up Kerrydale Street to wear the green. They served the club with distinction and pride and created legends which are talked of to this day. Not only did we see fantastic players from a wide variety of backgrounds wear the Hoops with pride, but over the past 127 years we have also witnessed more and more supporters join our ranks from all walks of life. The club has grown way beyond the narrow confines of its birth and has been immeasurably enriched and strengthened by the variety of people who have followed the team or worn those famous hooped shirts.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.