Sunday, 31 May 2015

Schadenfreude


 
Schadenfreude

There was a certain amount of gloating online after the collapse of the Rangers International football club’s campaign to make it to the SPFL. The German’s have a word for it: ‘schadenfreude’ which translates roughly as taking pleasure or satisfaction at someone else’s misfortune. This gloating was not just coming from Celtic fans as might be expected but from fans of clubs all over the country. It’s normal for the supporters of smaller clubs in all lands to dislike the perceived power, financial clout and occasional arrogance of the big clubs but the degree of dislike Rangers engender is on a different level. Part of this is football related as the smaller clubs like to see the tall Poppies cut down. Part of it is political as Rangers and many of their fans represent a strand of right wing unionism increasingly out of step with modern Scotland. Part of it is historical as some felt their discrimination in the signing of players was to say the least distasteful, as was the vile songbook aired by a sizable number of Rangers fans over the past hundred years.  One newspaper report from 1924 spoke of the behaviour of Rangers fans visiting Celtic park with the following words…

‘’Nothing so designedly provoking, so maliciously insulting, or so bestially ignorant has ever been witnessed even in the wildest exhibitions of Glasgow Orange bigotry. Blatantly filthy language of the lowest criminal type assaulted and shocked the ears of decent onlookers. The Scandal was renewed with increased violence on London Road after the match. Is it possible that the blue mob can do just about anything and get away with it? ‘’

Of course we may smile at the terminology and even bias of press reports from 90 years ago but those of you who have followed Scottish football over the years will realise that such behaviour is no laughing matter and has rumbled on amongst a sizable sub culture at Ibrox to this day. We saw only this week video footage of Rangers supporters chanting ‘We f*cking hate Roman Catholics’ on the Glasgow underground. The decent Rangers fans, and they do exist, seem powerless to influence the more lumpen types who engage their mouths before their brains. For many this historical and current poisonous factor is why they smirk at Rangers current troubles. The club and the fans are viewed as indivisible.

For me though the biggest reason that many of the supporters of Scottish clubs other than Celtic celebrated the new club’s failure today was the astonishing events of the last few years. It was once arrogantly boasted that the three great pillars of Scottish society were the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Legal system and Glasgow Rangers FC. This nonsensical myth was blown apart forever by the banking crisis of 2008 which saw the lenders calling in their debts and those who had borrowed beyond their means were in serious trouble. We all know the bubble of debt which puffed up Rangers in those years and the mess it made when it popped. For many Rangers supporters the bitter truth that the club had lived beyond its means and, in the eyes of many, cheated by paying players under the table via the now notorious Employee Benefit Trusts, was hard to take. As they stumbled from administration to liquidation in 2012 following the HMRC’s refusal of their Creditors Voluntary Agreement, it must have been a stunning blow to realise that the once mighty Rangers had gone the way of Woolworths and Comet and gone out of business. As their players walked away and the liquidators sold the assets dirt cheap to Charles Green, the football authorities in Scotland were in a quandary. Their subsequent actions opened they eyes of many to the proposed special treatment the newly formed ‘Phoenix Club’ at Ibrox was being offered. Pressure was brought to bear on the SPL clubs to admit the newco into the top league. When this was rightly rejected by all but Kilmarnock (who abstained from the vote) they passed the problem to the SFL and they, likewise refused to allow a new club into the first division despite dire threats of forming an SPL 2 and not inviting those who voted against Rangers to join. This bullying, aided by the usual suspects of the Scottish sporting press, turned the stomach of many clubs and supporters who questioned the integrity and morality of allowing a club to rip off creditors large and small for tens of millions of pounds and then simply reform and waltz into the first division. Celtic had kept a tactical silence throughout this period and this was probably wise given the potential for conflict in Glasgow. It was left to people like Turnbull Hutton of Raith Rovers to speak for the majority in Scottish football and say in no uncertain manner that a new club should start at the bottom.

All of this ill will floating around has made Scotland generally more intolerant of Rangers and the more uncouth excesses of their support. The excitement of Motherwell fans today as their club defeated Rangers to consign them to Division one for another season was palpable. Celtic fans no doubt face hostility in places such as Fir Park but today demonstrated that the old ‘Hun without the bus fare’ tag is wide of the mark. Few supporters around Scotland have much time for Rangers and in fairness Celtic are hardly popular either. But I just sense a sea change this last few years, a hardening of attitudes towards Rangers and much of it was to do with the perception that the football authorities had ripped up the rule book and were prepared to give special treatment to one club and that sticks in the craw of the average, honest Scot.

So they will fight it out again with Hibs, St Mirren, Q.O.S and Falkirk in Division one next season and few will be sympathetic to their plight outside the more sycophantic elements of the media. Theories aired in the media suggesting that Scottish football would die without a strong Rangers have proved to be nothing more than scaremongering by their apologists. Indeed, since Rangers entered administration in 2011-12 season major trophies have been won by Celtic, Hearts, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Inverness, Aberdeen and St Mirren. Attendances are up at many clubs and fewer clubs are in debt. The spread of trophies has given a great lift to the teams who won them as well as reinvigorating the game here.  The rise of the national team is helping this too. There is optimism in Scottish football that a brighter future can be gained if we continue to nurture young players and give them a chance. Clubs win trophies on merit and can be proud of their achievements.  Football is, as it should be, a meritocracy where the cream rises to the top. Rangers and their supporters should accept that they are currently a first Division club and that this is through no one’s fault but their own. No one ‘kicked them while they were down’ the rot was internal and the arrogance and greed which festered there brought the whole edifice crashing down.

It would also do them some good to learn the meaning of the word ‘humility’ but I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The sound of drums


 
 
The sound of drums
 
Last weekend saw me experience two very contrasting sets of emotions. On Sunday I joined 56,000 other Celts to enjoy a great day at Celtic Park as the Champions turned on the goals and got that big cup for the fourth consecutive year. There was a joyful mood among the Celtic support on Sunday and the positivity was everywhere. Ronny had dealt with his doubters very well by winning games and in the end 2 of the 3 major trophies up for grabs in Scotland. Flags flew, songs were sung and everyone wore a smile. The day before was very different.

I took a stroll through Glasgow Green last Saturday and it remains one of Glasgow’s finest Parks with a long history. It was on Flesher’s Haugh by the Clyde in 1745 that the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie were paraded. Glasgow was generally hostile to the Prince as they were doing fine under the Hanoverians and the young pretender’s religion was anathema to many in the City. Nearby is the People’s Palace which remains a fine example of a museum dedicated to the ordinary folk of a city and the former Templeton’s carpet factory building is surely one of the finest looking factories ever built. The design was said to be based on the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Sadly as it was under construction in 1889 part of the building collapsed onto the weaving sheds below and 29 women and girls were killed. If you know where to look, a plaque to their memory is on that spot today. My old mum also likes to point out the spot where the air raid shelter used to be during World War 2. She recalls as a 6 year old the excitement of hearing the sirens go off but also the worried looks on the faces of the adults as the drone of plane engines could be heard and then the booming sounds as the big Flak guns began shooting at them. She recalled that on those two consecutive nights in March 1941 when Clydebank was devastated by the Luftwaffe, the ground was actually shaking in Glasgow 7 miles away. They had emerged bleary eyed from the shelter as dawn was breaking and saw that the western horizon was glowing red as the fires consumed Clydebank.

Thankfully Glasgow Green was a more placid place as I passed through it although I soon noticed that there was a considerable crowd gathered in one section of the Park which was a little raucous. It seemed the Orange/Loyalist Parade which passed through the city ended with a rally at the park and the union flags and white and red Ulster banners had obviously sold well. I watched from a distance still a little bemused by the mind-set of these people who seem so out of step with the modern world. Two young lads, one draped in a union flag, worked cooperatively to pour a half bottle of vodka into a half full Irn Bru bottle. As I strolled down towards the High Court an older chap wearing a uniform which wouldn’t have looked out of place at the battle of Waterloo walked beside me for a while. ‘Great to see the bands out,’ he smiled taking me for one of the revellers. ‘The sun shining tae, God’s a proddy.’ As he chatted away I got a sense of the meaning all of this had in his life. ‘I went oan my first walk in 1969, big crowds then, seventy, eighty thousand in Glasgow. You don’t see that these days.’ His friend, a stout chap dressed in a Help for Heroes T shirt joined him, ‘Mon you,’ he shouted to his comrade, ‘forming up for the march back.’ The older chap shook my hand, ‘Nice meeting you mate, we are the people.’ Then off he sauntered to join his friends. He seemed like a harmless granddad and not the stereotypical intolerant Luddite associated with such events. As I watched them leave I couldn’t escape the feeling that their view of the world was so out of step with modern Scotland. I wondered if they knew or cared that the bulk of the population of this country views them as an anachronistic left-over from a bygone age.

It’s easy to dismiss such folk as unintelligent or bigoted and in truth there was a noisy element of uncouth types hanging around mouthing their worn out loyalist clich├ęs and singing songs of a dubious nature. The people I saw around me, for the most part working class Scots with a smattering of accents from the north of Ireland. They seemed to find some form of common identity in such gatherings and the idea of ‘belonging’ is a very strong human desire. One big drum had the words ‘Maintaining and celebrating our heritage’ stencilled on it around the ubiquitous picture of a Dutch King 300 years in his grave. I always had a rather jaundiced view of what this ‘heritage’ actually was as it expressed itself in my experience in bigotry, triumphalism and a sort of inward looking tribalism. It seemed to have precious little to do with Christianity. My first encounter with the Orange Parades sticks in my mind and came as a small boy when I was in a shop which sold Catholic statues and other such devotional items. It stood in the High Street and I waited with my mum gazing out the window as the parade passed by outside. The shop window was covered in saliva by the time they had passed. I recall wondering what sort of people did things like that.

We have also seen in recent years the attempted hijacking of Armed forces day (whatever you think of it) in Glasgow by loyalist types who seem to forget that all the people of these Islands fought in Britain’s wars and not just their little tribe. To me patriotism isn’t about unquestioning, brain dead loyalty or the sort of unhealthy hero worship of the military which sees any legitimate questions about their role as tantamount to treason. I find the whole mind-set baffling. I knew an Orange man from a poor scheme in the east of Glasgow who voted Tory and based this purely on the Party’s strong unionist principles and tough position on battling the IRA. His beliefs totally clouded his judgement on most of the big issues of the day. They were the prism through which he viewed the world and seemed to strip him of any ability to reason or argue a point logically. Everything was very black and white, us and them to him.

Like it or not these people share our country with us and we may not agree with much they say or do. They are however decreasing in number as the years pass and Parades which once saw 80,000 people on the streets now struggle to reach 10,000. As people inter-marry and religious observance continues to decline it is not unreasonable to assume the decline in this particularly Scottish sub-culture with also continue. I feel such historical echoes thrive in poverty especially when there is another group to blame for the country’s ills. A prosperous, fairer Scotland would, I feel, hasten their demise. It seems harsh to say I wouldn’t miss them one iota but it is nonetheless true.

 


Sunday, 24 May 2015

Another day in Paradise



Another day in Paradise

It seems like only yesterday I was writing about Celtic’s trophy day against Dundee United in May 2014. Alas another year has drifted past but one thing remains the same; Celtic and their amazing fans celebrating another title triumph. As with last year I was annoying you all with a big green Celtic Foundation bucket and I’m pleased to report that the Celtic support responded with their usual generosity. One wee lad had saved his pennies in a plastic bank bag and poured it into the bucket with the words, ‘just keep the badge, you can raise more if you sell it to someone else.’ His old man had taught him well. As I stood a few yards from the Walfrid statue I watched as grey haired old friends laughed and discussed games from 50 years back. I saw toddlers in their Hoops on their old man’s shoulders going to their first trophy day. I heard accents from all over the UK, Ireland, Asia, North America and Europe. All the beautiful diversity of the Celtic support was there today.

I sat in the section beside the small Inverness support and it gave a new vista onto the game than the one I normally have in the Jock Stein stand. Celtic played some lovely football but time and time again my eyes swept around the stadium to look and listen to that fantastic support. Make no mistake about it, it is these fans who made Celtic special and who continue to make it much more than a football club. Players will come and go but the support remains. As I gazed at the packed North Stand, bathed in spring sunlight, the stadium echoed to that wonderful refrain ‘Let the people sing.  Once a more modest enclosure stood on that spot, we called it the Jungle and in some ways it was a bit wild. It was a very masculine domain and few ladies set foot there in the old days. It would roar out its support for Celtic and gave tremendous backing to the team. Visiting teams and the odd linesman felt the force of the Jungle on a good few occasions. It was there the affection for Celtic our relatives planted in us grew as the years went on. I smiled a little as I gazed at the North Stand and remembered the Jungle and those characters and incidents woven into the Celtic story. That was where we stood as kids with our fathers, uncles and older brothers. There’s a line in the song ‘Let the people sing’ which goes…

 ‘Our music did survive through famine and oppression, to the generations gone I will sing to you this song...’

In some ways Celtic is a sign of a community surviving many tribulations and finally rising to take its rightful place in society. The children of marginalised and often despised migrants have grown into fully fledged Scots, proud of their Irish roots and confident of their place in society. Celtic has grown well beyond that founding community and now welcome people from every sector of society. Those many thousands of Celtic supporters no longer with us would have loved today. We all know who they are and we all miss them from time to time. My old man stood beside me through so many great Celtic days and through the darker times too. He took great pleasure in Celtic’s successes and the drink and songs would flow long into the night when leagues were clinched or cups won. I can still see him through the haze of smoke, beer in hand, with his family and friends around him singing…

‘In the war against Rangers in the fight for the cup

When Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up

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

On Erin’s Green valley look down in thy love.’

Such memories linger in the mind and when days like today come around it’s only natural to think of those we shared them with in the past. Celtic Park was our crossroads, our meeting place, our sanctuary. It was the place where we saw friends and made friends. Where we stood in the same spot for years and got to know those around us and shared our passion for the Hoops. As a child you’d gaze in wonder at the thousands of faces, hear those thousands of voices, gathered with a common purpose, to drive Celtic on to success. As an adult you smile to see children of today beginning their journey as Celtic fans.

Days like today reinforce the bonds between all Celtic fans and the bond they have with their club. The old Brigade would love to see that passion for Celtic still continues and if such a thing is possible, I know they’d be smiling down on us. That’s why I always remember them on such days. They often knew hardship, poverty and lived with intolerance from the unenlightened which comes when you follow Celtic. Celtic meant so much to them. When they had little or nothing at all, they still had Celtic to make them smile.

‘To the generations gone, I will sing to you this song….’

 

Friday, 22 May 2015

Days like today


 
Days like today

Tony pushed the button on the silver door entry panel and heard a tinny robotic voice, reminiscent of Steven Hawking, say ‘Welcome to the Stevenson Unit…’ Before the voice could continue  more human tones cut in, ‘Morning, how can I help you?’ Tony replied, ‘Visitor for Tommy O’Neil.’ There was a buzzing sound before the solenoid locking system clicked allowing the door to open. Tommy entered the warm, bright hallway as a small nurse sporting a smile walked towards him. ‘Tommy’s in the day room Mr O’Neil, just along here.’ Tony followed as she walked briskly along the corridor past a row of small, self-contained rooms, each with a bed and TV. They reached a door which opened into a much bigger room in which sat around a dozen or so older men and women in comfortable armchairs. The first thing Tony noticed was how quiet it was. He scanned the room and saw his father sitting by the window staring out at the garden as the rain fell from a leaden Scottish sky. The nurse nodded towards him, ‘He’s had a difficult week, this thing with your mum again.’ Tony nodded and walked to his old man, ‘All right Da?’ he said sitting beside him in an empty chair. His father looked at him with a confused look on his face, ‘Tony, good taw see ye son.’ Tony took his hand, ‘You as well Da, how have you been?’ His father looked a little bemused, ‘Your Ma Tony, where’s your Ma? How’s she no visiting me?’ Tony been through this painful conversation so often with his father and said gently, ‘Da, where do we go on a Saturday morning?’ His old man looked at him, ‘St Conval’s.’ Tony nodded, ‘and what do we do there?’ His father thought for a moment, ‘We visit Jean’s…’ his voice trailed off as it hit him that he visited his wife’s grave each week. He sat in silence as Tony regarded him thinking that it was one of the crueller aspects of Alzheimer’s disease that the confusion and memory loss made such painful reminders necessary. There was no point lying to his old man, his mother had passed 3 years before but Tommy’s long term memory was much stronger than his recall of more recent events. No doubt they’d have the same conversation again.

He took his father’s hand again, ‘Da, I’ve got tickets for the match this week. I’ll be collecting you on Saturday.’ The old man looked at him, his face a little brighter, ‘How are the Celts playing these days? Big Jock knew how tae get them going.’ Tony often turned the conversation to football as it made his father smile for a while are they talked about the days when Tommy had taken Tony and his brother Joe all over Scotland following Celtic. His father seemed so strong and vigorous in those days. Tony recalled having to run to keep up with him as he marched through the streets towards Celtic Park. But that was more than 20 years ago and the death of him Ma seemed to profoundly affect his old man. The changes were slight at first, forgetfulness, not following conversations, wearing his big overcoat on hot days, not paying bills and on one occasion burning out the microwave after having it set for over 5 hours. This last year though things had got out of hand. He had wandered into the pub in his pyjamas one afternoon and Tony had to leave work to fetch him. There were also a group of low life’s who had taken to sitting with him and telling him that it was his round all the time and in his confusion he had shelled out his money on them. The Barman, a decent guy, had put Tony wise to this and he and Joe had told the users in the only language such types understood that it had better stop or the consequences would be serious. This last few months had been the worse and his old man had spent a night in the cells after banging on a neighbour’s door at 3am and shouting his wife’s name. His once tidy home had deteriorated badly and it was obvious he wasn’t managing. After a narrow escape when he had put on the chip pan and forgotten about it, the kitchen had been gutted by fire. It was then agreed by all concerned that he couldn’t stay at home any longer. Social work had helped and place had been found for him at the Stevenson Unit. It was secure and he was looked after even if Tony found the lack of stimulation there a little much to bear.

Tony spent an hour with his dad talking about games they had been at, incidents they had witnessed and great players who had entertained them. He could see the sparkle return to his eyes even if he had no idea who Ronny Deila was. ‘Gemmell had some shot,’ his old man smiled, ‘I recall he nearly ripped the net the night we beat Benfica.’ Tony nodded enjoying his old man’s tales but also the vitality which flooded into him when he talked about Celtic. When it was time to go he reminded his old man that he’d be taking him to the match in a couple of days. Of course, he was likely to  forget but Tony told him anyway and pressed a small Celtic badge into his hands to remind him.

Match day dawned bright and breezy in Glasgow as Tony and Joe headed over to the Stevenson Unit to collect Tommy. When they were buzzed into the building they found him sitting in his room looking like a naughty boy in the Head Master’s office. ‘Aw right Da,’ grinned Joe, ‘Ye ready for the game?’ Tommy looked up, ‘Joseph! Good tae see ye son, what game would that be?’ Joe grinned, ‘Get yer coat on it’s Celtic against Rangers and maybe the last wan if that mob go bust!’ Tony fetched his father’s coat from the cupboard and they signed out at the desk in the foyer. ‘I’ll have him back in time for tea,’ Joe grinned at the staff nurse. The matronly woman seemed oblivious to his charms and snapped, ‘See that you do and no alcohol.’ As they headed for the door Tony whispered to his brother, ‘Ooft, Miss Ballbreaker must be a currant bun.’ They got into the car and headed for the motorway and Celtic Park as Joe played a few tunes on the CD player to get the adrenalin going. His old man grinned, ‘Just like old times, the O’Neil boys heading for Paradise.’

Celtic Park was a seething cauldron of noise and colour as Celtic and Rangers appeared from the tunnel. A wall of noise swept around the stadium and a huge banner was hanging in the Green Brigade section depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It said on the banner in huge letters ‘Your day is coming.’ Old Tommy O’Neil looked around him, ‘Jesus boys this is fantastic.’ As the ‘Grand Old Team’ faded and ‘You’ll never walk alone’ boomed out the two brothers linked their arms across their father’s back and all three of them along with 53,000 other Celtic fans sang for all they were worth. It was a magical rendition of the wonderful Celtic anthem and in those moments they were boys again, standing with their old man in the Jungle. When it was over they sat in the huge North Stand to watch battle commence amid a crescendo of chants and songs. The opening exchanges were ferocious as was normal in such games although Celtic looked the more composed side. In 19 minutes they won a corner and Kris Commons swept it deep to the back of the Rangers penalty box where Charlie Mulgrew was arriving and totally unmarked. He dived to meet the ball and his header flashed into the emerald turf before spinning up over the despairing fingers of McGregor and into the net. Celtic Park erupted like a pent up volcano and old Tommy hugged his boys as the home support went crazy. Tony saw the utter joy on his Father’s face, and felt the tears flow. Whatever the future held for his old man he was at least happy here where he had brought his boys on countless occasions in their childhoods. Other memories might be lost at least they had today and that was enough for now. As the crowd settled a little old Tommy looked at Tony, ‘God, I love the Celtic son, I always have ye know. Ye never get tired of days like today.’ Tony smiled back at him, ‘I know Da, I know.’

 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Honourable Men


 
Honourable Men

In the Shakespeare play ‘Julius Cesar’ Brutus and his friends have murdered Cesar in the Senate and worry about how the mob will respond to their deed. They allow Cesar’s friend Marc Antony to address the mob in Rome on the explicit understanding that he doesn’t blame Brutus and his cronies. Marc Antony skilfully points out the wounds on Cesar’s body before praising Brutus and his co-conspirators as ‘honourable men’ but doing so with such dripping sarcasm that the mob becomes enraged. The final blow is the reading of Cesar’s will to the crowd who hear of his love for them and what he bequeaths the city. As the mob begin to riot, Marc Antony, happy that revenge might soon be his, mutters to himself…"Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt." As a work of rhetoric, Marc Antony’s speech is a great example of saying one thing and meaning the opposite. The ‘honourable men’ are clearly exposed to the mob as self-serving assassins.

Strange that the words of Shakespeare came to me today, perhaps it was due to the decision of those honourable men at the SFA to pass Dave King as a fit and proper person. Yes he was on the board of the old club which suffered an insolvency event and died leaving millions owed to creditors large and small but the SFA are honourable men. They may argue the legalities of such decisions but the moral issue is clear: If we are saying that a man convicted of crimes of dishonesty is a fit and proper person to run a Scottish football club, then who exactly is unfit? Mr King came to the attention of the South African Tax Authorities when he bought a painting for R1.7m at a time his declared income was R60,000. Yes he was convicted of 41 counts of breaching the South African tax code and ordered to spend 2 years in prison for each offence or pay over £40m in fines. Yes, the Judge called him a ‘glib and shameless liar’ but such things were viewed as no barrier to him running the new Rangers by the SFA and they are, of course, all honourable men. They will find legalese words to give a fig leaf of respectability to their decision which is, in the eyes of many outside the Rangers bubble, just another example of  the SFA bending over backwards to help the reborn establishment club back onto its feet after the shameful demise of the oldco.

Their chums in the media will trot out the ‘good for Scottish Football’ guff till the gullible swallow it like a nice piece of succulent lamb. But they too are all honourable men, aren’t they?  They will also trot out the inarticulate and those of jumbled mind on radio phone in shows and let the cynics of the media attack them as obsessed or paranoid. Alas they are too late because we all know how it works now. We all see the manipulation, the calling in of favours and yes the agendas. We’ve seen it in politics and we see it again as sections of the media attempt to resurrect the corpse of old Rangers and stick it back on the throne.

The SFA themselves stated on their website…

‘’Mr King provided substantial information in relation to the matters set out at Article 10.2 (h) and 10.2 (j) namely: He has been convicted within the last 10 years of (i) an offence liable to imprisonment of two years or over, (ii) corruption or (iii) fraud and;  He has been “a director of a club in membership of any National Association within the 5-year period preceding such club having undergone an insolvency event”.

Despite this they still feel he is a fit and proper person to run a football club. Of course we trust them, they are all honourable men, aren’t they?

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The club for me


 
The club for me
His old man handed him the video tape on the career of the wonderful Pele, ‘Look at this guy, he’s the best player ever.’ Like all football mad youngsters young Henrik watched it over and over and saw one of the greats in action. He would say later that he expected to see a great goal scorer in action but saw immediately what Pele brought to the team as well as his finishing. It was a lesson he’d take into his own career. Thoughts of being a footballer were never far from his young mind but as his parents split up he had to deal with the fall-out from that as well as the low level racism he occasionally faced. He said of those years…

“I am not that dark but obviously I had my curly hair when I was young and you’d get people, who don’t understand, who will say something. I used to win the most fights as well, so it soon stopped. I can’t recollect feeling that different. I only had to look at my dad and I knew I wasn’t 100% Swedish, but when you are a kid you don’t have those worries. You just go on with it and that depends how the other kids are as well. There were times when people called you something. You always have the odd ones who will say something. You have bad people everywhere in the world and that includes Sweden.  The older I get the more I say it is stupid people that are racists or whatever, and mostly it is because they are afraid. I don’t understand someone who hates someone else when they don’t know the person, just because he’s black, yellow or whatever colour you want to mention. For me, that’s just not comprehensible.”

Those formative years helped Larsson become a tougher competitor on the field and for a man of modest stature he competed with great success in the physically demanding world of professional football. His early career in Sweden and Holland showed promise but even he would admit that his arrival at Celtic in 1997 was the turning point in his career. His contract with Feyenoord had a £650,000 buy-out clause which Wim Jansen took advantage of to secure perhaps the biggest bargain in Celtic’s recent history. His inauspicious start at Easter Road and then the following week at home to Dunfermline saw Celtic shed six points in a vital season which saw Rangers seeking to win 10 in a row but a turning point of sorts was reached at Perth when Celtic at last began to click and Larsson found the net for his first SPL goal.  Larsson’s appreciation of the supporters desire to ‘Stop the Ten’ soon hit home as he took on board more of Celtic’s history. He said…

"On my first day at Celtic, Clarky took me out into the hallway and pointed at one of the pictures of when they won the European Cup. He said: 'That's me wee man.' I was there for such a long time that you get to know the history, what it means to people.’’

Thankfully Larsson and his team mates did win the title in 1998 to end Rangers domination of Scottish football. In the 17 years since then Celtic has established itself as the preeminent force in the Scottish game and that looks set to continue for a while yet.

Those of us lucky enough to watch Henrik Larsson play for Celtic saw the genuine article. Here was a goal scorer of great ability but also, like his hero Pele, a team player who fought hard in every area of the pitch. His 242 goals in 315 appearances remains the third highest total in Celtic’s history with only Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox ahead of him. Those who say goals are easier to come by in the Scottish game cannot dismiss his 35 goals in Europe which remains a record for a player at a British club.  But there was so much more to Henrik Larsson than putting the ball in the net. His ability to harass defenders, to work for the team was exemplary. For Celtic fans it was important too that he came to an understanding of what the club was all about and he certainly did that. There were times when the lure of the English Premiership and its riches were sent to tempt him but he said no and told the fans that he’d honour his contract at Celtic Park.

Watching video footage of him hanging in the air to meet a cross or dinking the ball over an advancing keeper is to relive great times. We knew when we were watching him that we were seeing one of the greats. It is now 11 years since he said his emotional farewell to the fans who adored him and his own reaction to that parting said it all. He said…

This is the club for me. This is where I made myself as a player, this is where everybody got to know me and this is the club that I will be eternally grateful to for giving me that opportunity when maybe other clubs didn’t believe in me. This is where I got back into the Swedish national team and went on to play in European Championships and World Cups for Sweden. I couldn’t have done that without Celtic.”

As the years go on and we look back at those years watching Larsson play there are so many moments to cherish. His two goals in Seville on that bitter sweet night in 2003, his wonderful chip over Stefan Klos in the 6-2 game or his dinked goal at Blackburn Rovers on a night Celtic shut a few arrogant mouths.  For me his trademark tongue out, arms stretched goal celebration will live in the memory. The joy on his face when he scored was plain to see and I’m sure he saw it mirrored in the faces of thousands of Celtic supporters. I’ve been privileged to see some fine players in the Hoops but Henrik Larsson is among the finest. A great player who left us with some great memories. When he was asked if he was starting his career over again which of the clubs he had played for would he like to play for, he replied…

"Celtic, it’s where I made my name and played for seven years.’

Thank you for everything Henrik. They were great times which will live with all who witnessed them forever.

 

 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Remember


 
Remember
Last night’s fairly exciting end of season tussle between St Johnstone and Celtic saw the travelling supporters in fine voice. Indeed the first 20 minutes of the game was played out to a ceaseless cacophony of songs from the wonderful away support which backs Celtic so well on their travels. At one point stadium reverberated to a rather poignant song which I’m sure you all know well. It contains the line…

‘For you stole Trevelyan’s corn

So the young might see the morn

Now a Prison ship lies waiting in the bay...’

For the supporters of Celtic FC this song carries a folk a memory which echoes in the very DNA of the club. The event known as ‘An Gorta Mor’ (The Great Hunger) led not only to the deaths of over a million people but saw the dispersal of many more to all corners of the English speaking world.  Of course the great cities of the industrial revolution in the UK saw the benefits of imported Irish muscle in the factories, Docks and Mills. In their hundreds of thousands they came seeking a better life and an escape from deprivations we can scarce imagine, to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and of course Glasgow. In time they put down roots and contributed greatly to their host societies but they never forgot what drove them from Ireland in the first place.

Those of you who know the work of Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan will realise that he is a man of intellect and unafraid to take on the establishment. His background is that of a nationalist, his father fighting in the war of independence but as a historian and academic he knows that anything he writes should be backed up by evidence if it is to be taken seriously.  His books on the Troubles, the Easter Rising and other sensitive aspects of Irish history have caused great debate and one of his latest offerings is no less controversial.

‘The Famine Plot’ argues that the British Government was guilty of engineering the food shortage in Ireland to kill off surplus population in what was one of the first examples of ethnic cleansing in western Europe. Of course, the British could not be blamed for the failure in the potato crop which came as a result of the arrival of the ‘blight’ (Phytophthora infestans)  in Ireland which rotted the potatoes in the ground. However Coogan’s narrative informs us that the blight struck all over Europe and in countries like Scotland there was no mass starvation because Landowners and the Government acted swiftly and decisively to avert this. Why then did they not act likewise in Ireland? This remains the crucial question in determining why Ireland alone was to suffer a million fatalities and the displacement of whole communities.  Coogan states that anti-Irish racism and a still virulent anti-Catholic prejudice were part of the answer to why the Government did little of substance to prevent a very difficult situation turning into a disaster of biblical proportions. He quotes extensively from official documents, newspaper reports and eyewitnesses accounts to construct a damning picture of a Government which did little to prevent a million of its citizens perishing. All of this in the richest Empire on earth at the time.

In one chapter Coogan relates that when the Coastguard General, a man with some shred of decency, ordered his men to hand out food to starving paupers he was rebuked by Charles Trevelyan who said with breath-taking inhumanity…

‘This famine has been sent by God to teach the Irish a lesson. The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’

This idea of blaming the Irish for the Famine held sway with many in the British establishment. The fact is that Irish writers like John Mitchel warned the Government at the time what was occurring and was met with cold indifference. Mitchel wrote…

"The people watched as their "food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth, all the while watching heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."

Coogan’s book looks at the various forces at work which led to the disaster in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century. Yes the Laissez-faire economic philosophy of the day which demanded that the market will ‘sort it out’ played a part as did the natural inclination in those pre-welfare days to blame the poor for their plight. Where Coogan is masterful and concise is in his exploration of the morality of the educated ruling elite, who were for the most part church attending Christians, doing little while millions were in mortal danger. He clearly exposes the hypocrisy and prejudice which played a role in the Irish being considered expendable. Trevelyan himself said that the famine was…‘a mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ It takes a real lack of empathy to see the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in such terms.

Coogan is certain in his assertion that the actions of the British government in Ireland during the1845-52 period were little short of genocidal. This is powerful book with a powerful narrative which pulls no punches. To read it is to delve into one of the darker chapters of human history. One cannot help but be affected by the horrors it speaks of and the actions of those who could have helped but chose to look the other way.

That is why singing ‘The fields of Athenry’ at Celtic games is perfectly legitimate. Many of the supporters are of Irish descent and even those who are not understand the scale of the disaster which befell Ireland during An Gorta Mor and its role in the birth of Celtic. I recall driving from Shannon airport to my Grandfather’s home town in County Clare and noticing the abandoned cottages, long fallen into ruin, which dot the landscape. They stand in mute remembrance of countless lost souls and countless communities destroyed by famine and man’s inhumanity to man. Whole villages were emptied by hunger and those who survived had every right to tell their children to remember.

 

 ''Oh God that bread should be so dear and human flesh so cheap''

 

 

 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

They know not what they do

 
They know not what they do
Like so many letters from America one of the first comments from the exiled Scot concerned his favourite football team…

“A little Scotsman told me Hearts were in the final of the Scottish Cup and they were knocking hell out the Hibs, whereat I felt very much depressed”.

Nothing unusual in those words you might think, apart from the fact that the person writing them was James Connolly. Throughout his life Connolly was a great supporter of Hibernian FC and is said to have attended the meeting in 1875 when Hibs were founded. The little boy born at 107 Cowgate would have been only 6 or 7 years old then and suffering the sort of poverty and discrimination the rest of his kin experienced in the ‘Little Ireland’ district of Edinburgh. It is said he would help carry Hibs kit to home games and get in to watch the team for free. One player recalls telling him to get back from the pitch lest he be trampled by the rough, stampeding players of Victorian Scotland. Like many before him he joined the army to escape the dire poverty which had claimed his mother at an early age. He joined up at 14 and spent around 7 years in uniform, stationed mostly in Ireland. He recorded that it was the experience of watching how the Irish people were cowed by the military and oppressed by the landlords which informed his growing political enlightenment.

Connolly then embarked on his quest to awaken the working classes to their exploitation and through a variety of trade union and socialist activities he worked tirelessly for the common man. From the outset he saw and lambasted the disastrous effects of fostered sectarian division on the working classes. As a union organiser in Belfast he saw the petty privileges of one community over another as being ‘Tuppence against tuppence h’apenny’ and hoped to see a united working class fighting for the good of all. His travels took him to the USA, home to Scotland and back to Dublin at the time of the great ‘Lock out’ when employers sought to break the workers by denying them the wages to feed their families. Connolly saw the Federation of Employers hire groups of thugs to ‘rough up’ more than a few striking workers and formed the ‘Irish Citizens Army’ to counter this. It was this band of politically aware men and women who would march with him on that bloody Easter of 1916.

Big Tam and I were speaking of James Connolly this week on the 99th anniversary of his execution and he thought for a moment before informing me in his serious voice, ‘If James Connolly was alive today I think he’d be a Celtic supporter.’ His comments were based on the fact that Hibernian FC have grown so far from their Irish roots and founding principles that they would be unrecognisable to Connolly. Is this a fair assumption? Certainly some of the more politically minded among the Celtic support have used terms such as the ‘Hibernification of Celtic’ to describe any attempts to dilute Celtic’s Irishness. This is based on the fact that Hibs, founded in 1875 by Canon Hannan of St Patrick’s church in Edinburgh, have clearly become assimilated into Scottish society to the degree where supporters of the club are just as likely to come to it for geographical rather than ethnic reasons. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing as the smaller Irish founding community (when compared to Celtic in the west) may have been insufficient to make Hibs a big club in Scottish terms on their own.

There have also been dark mutterings from Celtic fans about the actions of Harry Swan when he became Hibs Chairman in the 1930s. Swan, an admitted Free Mason, oversaw many changes at Hibs such as the ending of free entry to Priests and the demolition of a wall bearing Hibernian’s famous Harp crest, an emblem that was soon to leave the club’s badge too. Swan was also involved in the ‘Flag Flutter’ of the early 1950s when Celtic were ordered to remove the tricolour from their stadium or face expulsion from the league. However, it seems clear that George Graham, then SFA Secretary was the driving force behind the anti- Celtic clique at that time. When Celtic refused to budge on the flag issue the rest of the league regained its senses and backed down. Desmond White, Chairman of Celtic in the 1970s said of Graham with an uncharacteristic lack of charity…

‘’He’ll roast in hell for what he tried to do to Celtic.’’

It is fair to say that Hibs have diluted their Irishness but for a Club established 140 years ago that is hardly surprising.  It is likely Celtic would have gone further down that road too if it wasn’t for the rivalry with a politically and some would argue, religiously, diametric opposition over at Ibrox. The so called ‘Old Firm’ effect has made any dilution of Celtic’s Irishness akin to treachery. Such has been the intensity of the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers over the last century that it has developed its own momentum. There is an unwillingness on the part of many Celtic fans to let go of what they perceive as their own and their club’s Irishness. This finds expression in the huge preponderance of Irish flags at Celtic games, the political sentiments expressed by many and the songs the supporters sing. In that sense James Connolly would undoubtedly find Celtic Park an interesting and welcoming place. However, the complexities of identity and growing number of Celtic fans from non-Irish backgrounds mellows this somewhat. Celtic has grown way beyond their founding community and most progressive Celtic fans see that as a good thing. There is no betrayal of the past in welcoming all who want to follow Celtic into the support. Indeed the inclusive ethos of the modern Celtic is a vindication of that founding generation who lived with much prejudice.

The past is a proud and honoured chapter in the club’s history but it must be our home and not our prison.

So what of James Connolly, who would he support today? I’m sure the man who held fast to his beliefs all the way to his execution in Kilmainham jail in May 1916 would also have stuck steadfastly to his fondness for Hibs. They were his team and which of us would turn our back on the team we love? As Eric Cantona once said, 'You can change your wife, your politics or your religion but never your favourite football team.' That is not to say Connolly should not be admired by all as a courageous and principled man for he was surely that. Father Aloysius, the Priest at Kilmainham, told Connollly's daughter Nora of his final moments with the following words...
 
‘I said to him, "Will you pray for the men who are about to shoot you" and he said: "I will say a prayer for all brave men who do their duty." His prayer was "Forgive them for they know not what they do" and then they shot him.’
 
 

James Connolly 1868-1916

Socialist and Hibs Fan

Rest in Peace
 


Saturday, 9 May 2015

What can you do?


 
What can you do?

There is a story about that great champion of non-violence, Gandhi,  which goes as follows: During the partition of Indian and in the midst of horrific inter communal violence a Hindu came to him and said, “I am going to hell.” Gandhi asked him, “Why?” He said he had killed a Muslim boy. Gandhi in his wisdom replied, “I know a way out of hell. Find a child with no parents and raise it. Only make sure it is a Muslim child and raise it as a Muslim.” Gandhi wasn’t excusing the man of his crime but he was asking him to pay part of his debt by raising a child as a Muslim and in this way learn about the Muslim faith and perhaps come to see that it isn’t so alien after all.

Thankfully few of us live in such tumultuous times and have never been asked to make such choices. Of course in our lives we have our own rivalries be they based in politics or sport and how we deal with the inevitable successes and failure these throw up tells us much about ourselves. When the SNP won a majority at the Scottish Parliament in 2011, few could have blames Alex Salmond if he appeared a little triumphant. Instead he held out an olive branch to his rivals by saying, ‘We may have the majority of seats but we have no monopoly of wisdom.’ Not everyone is as magnanimous as Mr Salmond and for some the old saying, ‘It is not enough that I succeed, someone else must fail,’ comes to mind. This is especially true in the tribal world of Scottish football. Let me give you an example…

Only once in my life did I accept the opportunity to go to a Celtic match at Ibrox and sit among the home fans. It wasn’t that I wanted to do this rather it was merely the fact that tickets were as rare as hen’s teeth and the pull of seeing the Celts in action there was too strong. On that occasion I was offered a couple of tickets by a chap who knew I was a Celtic fan and was kind enough to offer some advice. ‘Sit on yer hands if Celtic score and try to stand up and put on a fake grin if Rangers score.’ My brother and I headed over to Ibrox on a Celtic Supporters bus and it was strange walking through our green clad comrades who were milling around the away end and heading along Edmiston Drive towards the Copeland Road end. In such situations you have that strange feeling that the word ‘Tim’ is branded onto your forehead but we walked the walk and joined the line at the appropriate turnstile.

The first thing which struck me as a stranger in a strange land was the venom being expressed by a vociferous minority around me. One grey haired chap who sported a UDA badge on his scarf informed me that he was, ‘Looking forward to battering a few Papes before the day is out.’ As the line moved closer to the turnstile the old bigoted war songs filled the air as the Police looked on and said nothing. My seat was four rows from the front of the Copeland Road stand and chatted to an old chap who looked about 80 at half time. ‘I can’t go all of these hate songs,’ I said to him trying to sound like a Rangers fan. He nodded, ‘That’s the way it’s always been, what can you do?’ As I watched Celtic stutter to defeat that day long ago the vitriol pouring from the what seemed like most of the people around me could best be described as poisonous. I recall Danny McGrain overlapping and being met with a barrage of abuse much of which was disgusting and unprintable. With Celtic losing my brother and I left the stadium with still around 10 minutes left to play. It had been a sobering experience to see up close a culture which was to be honest pretty obnoxious to me. Words my old man said once came back to me… ‘The difference between us and them is that we don’t like them but they hate us.’ He may have been a little unkind to the more reasonable Rangers supporter but there was more than a grain of truth in his words as there seemed little sign of those reasonable fans in the Copeland Road stand that day.

Of course books have been written on group dynamics and the subtle pressure to conform to the norms of the culture around us. Perhaps there is some mitigation for those supporters brought up in a certain way to think in a certain way but there comes a time in life when we must think for ourselves. Human beings are social animals and the power of the culture can be internalised and accepted before we’re old enough to ask critical questions about it. That is why one of the great betrayals in life can come from those who teach a child to hate. No child is born that way, someone taught them those values.

That experience at Ibrox was many years ago but it stuck with me as it demonstrated what can happen when a certain culture develops and goes unchallenged even by those who abhor it. Clearly not all Rangers supporters are slavering bigots but there was in those times a mono-culture which allowed the sort of poison I experienced to go largely unchecked and even to thrive. No one challenged it then, not the Rangers support, not the media (with one or two honourable exceptions) and to their shame not the footballing authorities. At Celtic there has always been a debate among fans about what is acceptable and hard words are often exchanged about issues such as the singing of political songs, the content of banners or the behaviour of certain sub-groups among the support. This was notable in the 1980s when some supporters let the club down badly by throwing bananas at Rangers player Mark Walters at Celtic Park. Fanzine’s such as Not the View called them out as ‘racist arseholes’ and that tiny minority were made quite aware what Celtic stood for and what is and isn’t acceptable. That to me is one of the chief differences between the Celtic and Rangers supports. I seldom see real discursive debate on Rangers websites about the bigotry which a substantial percentage of their support indulged in for many years. There seems instead to be a culture of throwing mud at Celtic and attempting to drag their supporters down as if this somehow justifies their opinions and behaviour.

There is little doubt that Rangers FC as a club did make attempts in recent years to educate the less cerebral among their support but to some it seemed to have more to do with UEFA taking an interest rather than a moral decision to dispense with the sins of the past. Playing a mixed team was a step forward although it certainly threw up some incongruous moments. During the post Cup Final party when Donald Findlay the club’s then vice chairman was filmed singing about being ‘Up to his knees in Fenian blood’ it did not go unnoticed that Catholic player Neil McCann was standing behind him. Far from being harmless ‘folk songs’ such behaviour gives tacit, if unintended, approval to the less intelligent who’s bigotry festers in such an atmosphere. Intelligent men like Findlay should perhaps ponder on the fact that on that same day, a Celtic fan was murdered and another shot with a crossbow bolt.

The perspective of time suggests to me that things are improving in Scotland and the sort of bigotry which was once quite common is now less noticeable.  The exaggerated passions of football still offer a context for some to vent their spleen but things have changed and the law is more likely to intervene now. However, real change is never achieved by use of the law alone. There needs to a focus on education and the development of a fan culture which doesn’t accept the negative influence of hatred. Fierce rivalries are part of the game but blind bigotry doesn’t have to be and needs to be held up as the vulgar and destructive force it is.

That old Rangers fan I talked to all of those years ago had said to me, ‘That’s the way it’s always been, what can you do?’ I think many people have realised since then that there were things you could do. Some despaired and gave up on football altogether. Others tried to change the culture surrounding their club because they genuinely wanted things to improve. Change is always possible but it relies on individuals brave enough to challenge the ingrained group mentality.

As Gandhi said, ‘Sometimes you must be the change you want to see in the world.’