Saturday, 28 May 2016

Slaying the Dragon

Slaying the Dragon

As a boy I lived a few hundred yards from Ibrox Stadium in the aptly named ‘Wine Alley’ part of Govan. There were a lot of Celtic families around the ‘Winey’ and we got on well with our neighbours regardless of which team they followed. There was a distinctive working class solidarity, a common understanding that the hard lives many of us lived made it necessary for us to get on and be a real community. Neighbours helped out when required with a few slices of bread, a cup of sugar or ‘ten bob till I get paid.’  There was an understanding too among most that when the ‘Walk’ was out or someone came home blootered singing what we called ‘Party songs’ it’d be quickly forgotten. Such things floated under the radar, out of sight and mostly out of mind.

As boys, my two brothers and I would often head for Ibrox at around 4.30 on a match day. We were absolutely solid in our love of Celtic but as cash strapped ‘Winey’ boys there was money to be made there. We’d take old jute sacks and wait until the big exit doors were opened near the end of the game. We’d head in among the crowds and collect beer or ‘ginger’ bottles which lay here and there on the terraces. Once our sacks were full we’d head for the nearby shops to cash in our booty and enjoy a few sweets. In that context I was inside Ibrox on scores of occasions and even as a wee boy I still got a powerful impression of what things were like on the big Copeland Road terracing of those days.

The amount of drink being consumed on the terraces was huge as was the ubiquitous smell of urine as those too drunk or unconcerned simply pissed where they stood. It was an uncouth and uncultured setting and to be fair Celtic Park was little better in those days as in the prevailing culture, Football and alcohol often went hand in hand. I used to sit on the low wall at the front of the terrace and look at the crowd, sullen in defeat, loud and exultant in victory and always an undercurrent of aggression. The songs were in retrospect pretty grim fare. The ‘Billy Boys’ was a regular as was a quaint version of Derry’s Walls sung to the tune of Amazing Grace. The Sash and the Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne, got an airing too. As a boy you didn’t question why such songs were sung, it was merely the way things were and we assumed the way they always would be.

As we grew up we could see more clearly the corrosive effects of the prevailing ‘culture’ at Ibrox and indeed the social deprivation which helped it thrive. Not just on the intended targets of much of the vitriol, Glasgow’s Irish-Catholic community but also on the people who stood week in week out on the terraces and were steeped in that rather warped world view. I knew a few Rangers supporting boys from the Wine Alley and we played together regularly in the streets around Ibrox and there is no doubt they were good guys. I met one recently and we shared a few anecdotes and laughs about our childhood days. He loved his team, I loved mine and we coexisted on that basis just fine. The bonds with friends and neighbours from all walks of life wouldn’t be broken by exposure to the more shrill attitudes embraced by some at football. Therein lies one of the main problems for those espousing a racist or sectarian world view: knowing people personally makes it impossible to stereotype them. That’s why some talk of disliking certain groups but not the individuals from that group they know personally. They’re somehow ‘different’ as they don’t match the stereotype. It is of course all patent nonsense, we are all individuals and to hold a prejudice about a whole section of society is, frankly, stupid. Those who attempt to justify such attitudes are usually, with a few exceptions, not the sharpest tools in the box.

The fallout from the Scottish Cup Final continues unabated and it was with no little irony that the Twitter account  of a staunch Rangers Pub, tweeted that the ‘Dehumanisation of Rangers fans has to stop.’ This a few days after thousands of their fellow fans sang at Hampden tired old dirges about being up to their knees in others blood. They did not tweet about that. It is this selective mode of taking offence which undermines their argument. In Harper Lee’s brilliant exploration of racism in small town America, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’  she writes…

‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.’

That remains true for many of us and each of us has to decide where the line is in terms of the often cutting verbal sparring which comes with all sporting rivalry and the darker more offensive utterances rooted in more visceral prejudice. For many who follow the Ibrox side there has been a rude awakening over the past few years as many openly challenge and mock the rather outdated attitudes of some of their followers. What’s required though to finally slay the dragon of intolerance at Ibrox is for the seemingly silent majority of Rangers supporters who hate the stench of bigotry which hangs around their club like a bad smell to say ‘that’s enough, it’s time to move on.’ Currently those decent supporters seem a little intimidated by the more vocal and aggressive types who exist in all groups. 

Nor should Celtic supporters or indeed the fans of any club smugly rest on their laurels. Every group in society will have its share of less enlightened individuals and the group culture must remain hostile to those who would foster hatred. Thankfully I see in the Celtic support, in the Fanzines and Blogs many who would not be slow to challenge anyone who attempted to do this. It’s now almost 30 years since a few of our own supporters behaved in a despicable manner towards Rangers player Mark Walters but even back then Fanzine’s such as ‘Not the View’ rounded on what it called ‘Racist arseholes.’ They were called out for the morons they were and reminded of the founding principles of our club and its’ own experience of prejudice. The Celtic support is not perfect but it does contain many who love the club enough to challenge the attitudes of some of our own and that is good and healthy as it fosters a continuing and often heated debate about what is acceptable.

There has been a huge change in Scottish society since my brothers and I collected ginger bottles on the Ibrox terraces. What was once tolerated and even excused by some is now seen in the harsh light of day as unacceptable intolerance. Indeed one of the first voices raised against the sectarianism at Ibrox in the 1970s came from the Church of Scotland Magazine ‘The Bush’ which had the courage of its convictions and spoke out. It was a lone voice in the wilderness for some considerable time. The powers that be at Ibrox once offered tacit approval to the toxic attitudes of the terraces via their unwritten policy of not signing Catholic players. That has thankfully changed even if a significant minority of their supporters have still to join the 21st century.

Each human being has to decide for themselves what their attitude to others in our society will be. Most of us have enough empathy in us to realise the folly of stereotyping others or allowing sporting rivalries to go too far. Harper Lee reminded us in her excellent book of the importance of empathy when her character Atticus says…

‘You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

If we did that we’d all be slower to castigate others. I’m not excusing bigotry or racism for a moment but the people who practice it were once children, once blank pages waiting to be written on. Someone taught them to hate and allowed a culture to develop where it flourished. It’s the job of all of us to ensure that culture diminishes and dies. As another of Harper Lee’s characters says in her novel… ‘I think there’s just one kind of folks: folks.’

She was right.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Time to tell James

Time to tell James

Watching former Celtic player Alan Stubbs lead Hibs to their first Scottish Cup win in 114 years was pleasing this weekend. Of course there is no denying it was a little sweeter given the opposition but it was more than schadenfreude. The Celtic connection among the Hibs players was strong with man of the match Stokes, Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeogh all current or former Celtic players but having watched Hibs fall at the final hurdle so many times it was good to see them win regardless of who was in their line-up. For Stubbs the win makes the difference between a disappointing season in which they failed to return to the Premiership and a season their support will always remember.

This week I read his biography and the sections dealing with his time at Celtic made for an interesting trip down memory lane. Having joined Tommy Burns’ Celtic in the summer of 1996, he found himself in a city working itself into a frenzy over Rangers attempts to equal or surpass Jock Stein’s 9 in a row record. Those of you who recall those times will testify to the tension which existed in the Scottish game then and particularly the degree of tension between Glasgow’s two big clubs. Celtic supporters had endured 8 long years in the wilderness and at last under Tommy Burns were beginning to show signs that they were ready to become serious contenders again. As Stubbs ran out at Ibrox early in that 1996-97 Season the cold blast of sectarianism hit him forcefully. He recalled in his biography ‘How Football Saved My Life’…..

‘I was waiting in the tunnel to go out for our warm up and could hear a level of abuse I’d never come across before. I’d been around long enough to think I’d heard everything an opposition supporter can shout at you but this though was something new. ‘You Fenian bastard! We’re going to break your legs Celtic scum. Hope you get fucking cancer and die. Looking back I was taken aback by the abuse and sheer vitriol with which it was shouted. As the team walked down the tunnel towards the pitch, the Rangers fans greeted us with a volley of spit. It was disgusting.’

His book deals with issues of the day with honesty and gives a little more insight into incidents such as the dressing room bust up between Mark Viduka and John Barnes on the night ‘Super Caley went ballistic’ and knocked Celtic out of the cup. Viduka’s refusal to go out for the second half and his virtual brawl with Eric Black went a long way to costing John Barnes his job. Stubbs affection for Tommy Burns shone through too and he was sad to see Tommy go in the wake of losing the title to Rangers. Tommy’s commitment to all-out attack meant that they often outplayed Rangers only to be suckered on the counter attack as that old Fox Walter Smith knew exactly how Burns’ team would approach the match. From the down of losing a Manager he greatly admired to the high of stopping the ten in 1998, Stubbs’ time at Celtic was certainly eventful. The club was being reborn under Fergus McCann and set on a firm financial footing. Given what occurred at Ibrox in the proceeding years McCann’s legacy is obvious.

Stubbs talks frankly about the sectarianism which scars aspects of Scottish football. He played against Paul Gascoigne in a few derby games and recalls Gaza’s ill advised ‘flute playing’ antics. It was ironic that he’d end up at Everton, his boyhood favourites, playing with Gazza and being managed by Walter Smith. Although Stubbs was not at all keen on Smith’s assistant Archie Knox who he says used foul mouthed bullying to cajole senior players who were unlikely to respond to such tactics.

Stubbs outlines his battle with testicular cancer and how Celtic stuck by him and ensured he was looked after. His urine test after losing the Scottish Cup Final to Rangers picked up the signs that all was not well. Stubbs battle back to fitness and subsequent relapse makes for inspiring reading. He was and remains and honest working class lad who tells it as he sees. He retains great affection for Celtic but as a professional gave his all for every club he represented. I recall his late equaliser against Rangers on a cold November night in 1997 which seemed to instil in Celtic the belief that they could turn over Smith’s team and win the title. That goal, in retrospect was absolutely vital as to have lost that game would have cost Celtic their moment of glory in May 1998.

In some ways the antics of supporters after the final whistle at yesterday’s cup final will distract people from the magnitude of Stubbs achievement in winning the Scottish Cup for just the second time since Queen Victoria sat on the throne. There is no doubt that a minority of Hibs fans were out of order as were those in blue who entered the field of play, as they had done in 1980, intent on violence. The wave of joy which saw thousands of Hibs fans sweep onto the field is perhaps understandable but any assault on players is not acceptable. Statements from Rangers commending their supporters’ restraint seem a little hollow given the video evidence to the contrary and their silence on thousands singing the old poisonous, bigotted songs is predictable. No football fan can condone what occurred yesterday but when all of the fuss is forgotten and we’ve moved on to other things the history books will record that the longest running losing streak in Scottish football history is over. After 114 years of failure and ten final defeats Hibs have finally won the cup and Alan Stubbs was the man who led them to their moment of glory.

One of the Hibs fan sites posted a poignant picture of the grave of one of their supporters, James Boyle, who passed a few years ago. On his gravestone it says ‘PS I was a Hibs fan so if they win a cup let me know.’ It’s time to tell James that his team finally came through and delivered the Scottish Cup to their long suffering support.

Well done Alan Stubbs and well done Hibs. You were Celtic’s inspiration in 1887 and although we will doubtless be fierce rivals in the future there are many who follow Celtic who were delighted at your victory.

Rest in Peace James. Your boys finally did it. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Glasgow's Green and White

Glasgow’s Green and White

As weddings go it was one of the best Aldo had attended. Not just because his wee sister was the Bride but also for the first time in years all the clan were together again in one place. The service had his mum in tears and Aldo knew she still missed his old man, they all did, but today was a day for smiles. The day passed in blur of photographs, handshakes, smiles and speeches and as darkness fell the church hall was packed and ready for a party.

‘You goin’ tae the game the morra?’ Aldo asked as he handed a bottle of beer over to his friend Dan Friel who was watching the band tune up their guitars for the coming festivities. ‘No missing that for the world, Aldo. Rubbing it right intae that mob I hope.’  Aldo took a long swig from his beer before responding, ‘Who’d have thought that mob would go intae administration eh?’  Dan smiled, ‘I don’t know aboot you but I’m loving it. Time Karma came and bit their arrogant arses.’ No sooner had those words left his lips than the band began their set.  Aldo shouted through the din, ‘Right you, ye better find yer missus. This is my sister’s wedding no the Celtic social club.’ The friends parted and sought out their partners, it was going to be a good night. The dance floor filled with happy people as the band boomed out…

‘Teenage dreams so hard to beat
Every time she walks down the street
Another girl in the neighbourhood
Wish she was mine, she looks so good,
I wanna hold ya, wanna hold ya tight
Get teenage kicks right through the night.’

As the night wore on and the alcohol kicked in the Wedding party became more raucous. Laughter filled the hall those who could remember it in the morning would say it was one of the best night’s they’d had. They had cheered his sister and her new husband off on their honeymoon before the drinking and singing had resumed. As the party neared its end Dan and Aldo made plans for the Celtic game the following day. Dan, his speech slurred by too much beer, said ‘Might be the last Old Firm game ever so make sure you’re up as it’s a 12.45 start.’ Aldo looked at Dan, ‘Dae ye really think they could go out of business?’ Dan smiled, ‘Ye never know but they’ll be back in some shape. I mean Airdrie went bust and they formed a new club.’ Aldo nodded, ‘Well let’s hope Celtic smash the old one one last time.’

For Aldo the morning after the night before began with a searing headache. He opened his eyes and looked around the room, ‘Oh feck sake, ma heed!’ he mumbled reaching for his watch which lay beside a half empty bottle of beer on the bedside cabinet. It was almost 11am. He licked his lips, parched and dehydrated. His phone buzzed, interrupting his self-pity, he picked it up and croaked, ‘Hello?’ It was his friend Dan. ‘You up yet ya numpty?  Ye forget we’ve got a game tae go tae?’ Shit,’ said Aldo, throwing the quilt back and standing on unsteady legs, ‘I’ll get intae the shower, be ready in ten minutes.’Good,’ said Dan, sounding strangely upbeat despite drinking till 3am at the wedding, ‘Pick ye up in 20 minutes and naw I’m no driving, my old man’s planked my keys till I sober up. He’s dropping us off.’

As the car nudged its way through the busy streets of the east end there was an air of excitement among the green clad fans thronging the streets around Celtic Park. They got out of the car and joined the green river of people snaking its way to Celtic Park. The Gallowgate was alive with song and the two friends joined in with gusto…

‘When I see you Celtic I go out of my head
And I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough
All the things you do to me and all the things you said
I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough
We slip and slide as we fall in love
And I just can’t seem to get enough’

They entered the Lisbon Lions stand and found a stadium in ferment. The atmosphere crackled and hummed as they took their seats on the fringes of section 111 where the Green Brigade’s drums were already booming out in the clear spring air. The excitement was contagious and Dan grinned at Aldo, ‘Let’s hope we turn up and do this mob today.’ Aldo though wasn’t paying attention as Dan followed his gaze to see a huge black banner being unfurled above the Green Brigade section. It showed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the message ‘Your Day is Coming’ emblazoned beside it. Dan laughed, ‘haha fecking belter!’ A sea of black flags fluttered in the breeze and scores of fans held up mock grave stones with a variety of mocking messages on them. Aldo looked at his friend, ‘That has got to be the best wind up ever!’ Before Dan could answer a huge roar announced the arrival of the teams, they focussed on the pitch and joined the tens of thousands of other Celtic fans in their booming rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ The scene was set.

Celtic started well and among the clattering tackles and snarling players were playing the more composed football. In the 17th minute they won a corner and the Celtic fans behind the goal roared in anticipation. Hooper, Samaras and Wanyama jostled for space in the box as Commons stood over the ball. To just about everyone’s surprise he clipped a ball beyond the milling six yard box. ‘Wit ye doin’ Commons?’ someone near Aldo shouted but as the ball arced across the box a blur of movement sped towards it. It was the late arriving Charlie Mulgrew who headed the ball firmly into the emerald turf of Celtic Park and sent in rebounding high into the Rangers net. There was an explosion of joy around most of the stadium as a huge roar split the skies over Paradise. Aldo’s hangover was forgotten as he hugged his friend and screamed out his delight.

Celtic totally dominated the game now and how their supporters loved it. The songs poured onto the pitch, a ceaseless cacophony of noise. In 31 minutes Hooper turned a Rangers defender on the touchline and pinged a pass to Commons who took it in his stride and advanced on the goalkeeper. ‘Hit it!’ screamed Dan but the artful Commons clipped it over the keeper with a deft chip. It was 2-0 and the celebrations among the Celtic supporters were wild. Aldo found himself falling over the seat in front and being saved by a bear of a man with a broad Irish accent and an even broader smile, ‘Watch yourself fella,’ he smiled as he helped Joe up, ‘Wouldn’t want you missing any of this.’ Aldo was ecstatic and joined the thousands chanting for all they were worth…

'We slip and slide as we fall in love
And I just can’t seem to get enough
Doo doo doo doo doo doo’

As the simmering mass of Celtic fans bounced and sang the tune switched to another designed to annoy the silent, brooding visiting support…

You’re Rangers till July, Rangers till July
We know you are, we’re sure you are
You’re Rangers till July.’

The rest of the game swept past in a blur of Celtic dominance epitomised when Gary Hooper smashed a magnificent third goal past the Rangers goalkeeper. After that the score could have been anything as Celtic toyed with a beaten, demoralised team. For Dan and Aldo it was just about the most perfect weekend they could remember. As the Lisbon Lions stand belted out their anthem, the Jock Stein stand boomed back an echoing reply...


The game was a joyous celebration for the Celtic supporters present, they were Champions again, they were dominating their oldest rivals and for many a long overdue dose of Karma was descending on Ibrox. As the final whistle sounded on a resounding win the P.A system at Celtic Park boomed out ‘Come on over to my place, hey girl we’re having a party…’ For Dan, Aldo and thousands of other Celtic supporters the party was only just beginning. They left the stadium, arms draped around each other, smiles as wide as the Clyde. These were the days they lived for. As the army of Celtic supporters marched back along the Gallowgate to the pubs and clubs of the east end their songs flowed into the April sky. Today was their day and by God they were going to enjoy. Glasgow was indeed green and white.