Andy Gallagher looked at his old man as he sat up in the hospital bed. He was looking frail and grey as his illness reached it’s inevitable conclusion. ‘Mind I took ye tae yer first gem, Andy? Aberdeen at Parkhead?’ Andy nodded, ‘Aye, Da. We won 2-1 back in 85?’ Old Johnny pushed himself up in the bed, wincing at the effort, ‘Aye, you were six and tae be honest ye were more interested in the macaroon bar than the game in those days.’ Andy smiled, ‘Naw I wasn’t, I remember McClair scored the winner in the last minute and there was a minute’s silence for big Jock. That was the week he died.’ Andy’s smile faded a little as he thought of big Jock passing. He looked at his Dad, ‘What makes you ask about that game?’ His old man went on, ‘It was the St Mirren game that May when we won the league, mind when Hearts collapsed at Dundee? That was when I knew ye had the bug. I was pleased as punch the Celts won the league that day but looking at you, yer eyes shining, almost greetin’ cause yer team had done it. I knew then Celtic was in ye for life.’ Andy smiled, ‘Aye, I got the bug that day alright Da. Ye looked pretty pleased yerself, running oan the pitch and setting a bad example tae yer son.’ His old man laughed but it was cut short by a hacking cough. He pointed to the water jug and Andy poured him a glass of water. He watched his father, once so vigorous and strong drain the glass. When he had finished he looked at Andy, ‘My old man said I got when I was eight. He took me tae see the Lions play. They mauled the Huns 5-1. It was crazy in the Celtic end, losing at half time then the second half blitz and everybody going mad, could have been 8 that day but I’m not greedy.’ Andy smiled, he tended to avoid the term ‘Huns’ these days but for guys of his Dad’s generation it meant Rangers and their followers and nothing else. The P.C Brigade had hijacked the word for their own ends.
His old man went on, ‘Thing is, I was glad my Da took me to see Celtic, had some great times, met some great folk and learned about life along the way. I think you were the same when I took you.’ Andy nodded in silence, letting his father get to the point. ‘I want wee Scott tae go along and see if he likes it. Five generations of Celtic fans in our family going back tae yer great Granda Paddy Gallagher fae Donegal. We cannae let the new generation drift away.’ Andy watched his old man reach into the locker and bring out a white envelope. ‘He handed it to Andy, saying, ‘I spoke tae big Hutchy aff the buss and he squared me up wi these tickets for old time sakes. I was a member for over 30 years.’ Andy opened the envelope and saw it contained two tickets bearing the Champions League logo along the top. On them he read the words: ‘Celtic v Barcelona, 7 November 2012.’ Andy looked at his father, ‘Jeez Da, these are like gold dust!’ His old man lay back on the pillow, ‘Just take the wee man, see what he makes of it.’ Andy nodded, ‘Right ye are Da, here’s hoping we don’t get a battering.’ His old man smiled, ‘I’ve seen some great teams struggle at Celtic Park. Ye never write the bhoys off wi that support behind them.’ Andy touched his old man’s hand. ‘Thanks Da, I’m sure he’ll love it.’ The old fella’s regular breathing told Andy he was already deep in sleep.
The weekend before the Barcelona game Andy travelled to Tannadice and watched as Celtic dominated and led 2-0 into the closing stages. Then in 88 minutes MacKay Stevens scored for United and right at the end the hapless Efe Ambrose deflected a cross into his own net to give the hosts an unlikely draw. The Celtic support left the stadium brooding on their team’s defensive frailties and speculated on what Messi, Xavi and Iniesta would do to them in midweek. The odds on Celtic taking anything from that game were long indeed but that would be a very different occasion. Celtic Park under the lights on those big European nights could weave a kind of magic. They still had hope if not much expectation that Celtic could surprise them all and give the brilliant Catalans a run for their money.
The streets around Celtic Park were at fever pitch as 60,000 supporters moved through the November darkness towards the stadium which stood like a huge, green spaceship. Andy held Scott’s hand as they walked up Janefield Street towards the huge North Stand. He glanced at his nine year old son, ‘You looking forward to the game?’ Scott, head wrapped in a green and white woollen tammy smiled up at him, ‘Aye, Da I can’t wait to see Messi and Villa. Maybe Xavi will be playing too!’ Andy smiled back at his son, ‘Don’t be writing off Celtic son, you never can tell what will happen in football.’ He had taken Scott to a few SPL games but as yet it was something of an effort to get him to come along and leave his X-Box behind. They reached the queue at the turnstile and there was little room under the huge stand as thousands of fans waited for entry to the game of the season. Songs and laughter filled the air although few boasted that Celtic could actually win. ‘Just give them a good fight and we’ll be happy,’ Andy heard the man next to him say to his friend. Realism was always required when you took on a team of Barcelona’s quality.
As Andy guided Scott down the steps to his seat near the front of the North Stand he could feel the electricity in the air. Celtic Park was buzzing, the atmosphere crackled and the dark November night was split with songs pouring from the stands. From the Green Brigade’s corner he could hear…
‘Oh, oh, Victor Wanyama, Wanyama, Wanyama, oh oh!
Scott sat on his seat and looked around him wide eyes taking it all in. On every seat was a rolled up piece of plastic and Scott picked his up, ‘What’s this for Da?’ Andy smiled, ‘We hold them up at the same time to make a big picture.’ Scott looked around him and noticed the plastic was on every seat, ‘Everybody’s doing it?’ he said incredulously. Andy nodded, ‘Oh Aye, the whole stadium.’ At that moment the public address system began ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and the chatter in the stands stopped as tens of thousands of voices sang in unison and green and white scarves were raised around the stadium. It was an dramatic sight, an assault on the senses which young Scott watched in awe. Then, as the teams entered the field of play and the Champions League theme music echoed around the stadium, almost 60,000 coloured sheets of plastic were held in the air to create an astonishing mosaic which covered the stands of Celtic Park. Scott, standing on his seat, held his up with the rest. His father watched him, smiling.
As the game began Scott was totally focussed on the play. Much as he loved Messi and the other Barcelona superstars he was clearly backing Celtic. ‘Come on Celtic!’ he roared as Celtic mounted a rare attack on the Barca goal. From their seats near the halfway line they watched the ball arc across the Barcelona 18 yard box, a white blur under the lights. Scott watched open mouthed as Victor Wanyama out-muscled his marker and powered the ball past the goalkeeper and into the net. Celtic Park erupted like a pent up volcano! Andy grabbed his son in a wild hug, ‘Yasssss!’ Scott was equally enthusiastic, ‘We’ve done it Da, we’ve done it! We can beat them, I know it.’
In that moment Andy knew that Scott had caught the bug. The same bug he had caught when he watched Brian McClair scored a late winner against Aberdeen in 1985. The same bug his old man had caught when Stein’s team smashed Rangers 5-1 in 1966. Scott was hooked and his grandad would be a happy man.
They turned back to the field and watched Barcelona kick off a goal down. Whatever else happened on this incredible night at Celtic Park it was going to be an occasion they’d never forget.