Friday, 29 July 2016

The Bug

The bug

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.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Stand up for the Ulsterman

Stand up for the Ulsterman

A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and I can honestly say that whether you are a religious person or not it is simply magnificent. I wandered around the cavernous church as shafts of bright sunlight poured in the windows of the massive dome giving the place a ethereal quality. Of course one is impressed by the sheer scale of St Peter’s and the elaborate beauty of the place but one artwork in particular made me stop and stare longer than any other. It was the white marble Pietà sculpted by Michelangelo in 1498-99. The Pietà shows the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son in her arms after he is removed from the cross. There are all sorts of theological messages in the Pietà and discussions of the greater meaning of such works could fill volumes. For me though, the simplistic and very human scene is what struck me most. Here was a woman who loved her son, worried about him and finally saw him put to death in a most painful and public manner. The Pietà captures her anguish so well. As I gazed at the Pietà, another image came to my mind. It was a picture from the Iraq war which showed yet another mother cradling her lost boy.  It made me realise that we humans have always had to deal with suffering but also that our stupidity and greed creates so much of it unnecessarily.

Yesterday at the Celtic v Leicester City friendly game the Green Brigade unfurled a tribute to a boy sadly lost in the most tragic of circumstances. I can’t begin to imagine the anguish his family are going through but perhaps in a tiny way the message sent out in the banner was a small reminder that we do care. In all the years I’ve followed Celtic there was always a realisation among the vast majority of supporters that some things are bigger than football and our petty rivalries. We have witnessed support across the board for Fernando Ricksen and his ongoing battle with the God awful Motor Neurone Disease. Similarly, respect was shown when fine players such as Jim Baxter, Tommy Burns, Sandy Jardine or Jimmy Johnstone passed. It was as if their abilities as footballers and qualities as human beings made everyone realise that the loss was bigger than any opinions about the clubs they represented. Likewise wee Oscar Knox won our hearts with his courage and spirit and I don’t mind admitting to shedding a tear as I watched him cavort with Celtic mascot Hoopy the Huddle Hound on a bright Summer’s evening a few years ago as Celtic hosted Cliftonville.

My old man went to the Pub in the aftermath of an Old Firm game at Ibrox one time. It was part of his routine in those days long ago, watch the game then talk about the action over a few beers. However that particular Old Firm game was scene of a tragedy which he only became aware of as the news reports came in on the fuzzy, black and white TV above the bar. He told me once that, fans were herded in and out of grounds like cattle in those days and that the dreadful accident on Stairway 13 could just as easily have happened at the other end of the ground. Rivalries, no matter how fierce, meant nothing when the scale of human suffering became known. All decent supporters know this and that common decency marks them out from that irksome minority, too thick or too full of hate to empathise with the sufferings of their fellow football fans and fellow human beings.

I’m proud of the way Celtic extended the hand of friendship to Liverpool FC in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy. I know for a fact that among the 60,437 supporters who turned up that spring day in 1989 for the memorial match at Celtic Park, a sizable number were followers of clubs other than Celtic and Liverpool. I know personally three Rangers supporters who stood on the Parkhead terraces that day to support in their own small way a suffering city and a hurting people. I also know from talking to Liverpool supporters over the years that they will never forget those who stood with them in their darkest hours and those who supported and encouraged them on the long road to justice.

It didn’t escape my notice during the Republic of Ireland’s match with Sweden at the recent European Championships that there was spontaneous applause around the stadium in the twenty fourth minute as the Irish supporters paid tribute to Northern Ireland fan, Darren Rodgers, (who was 24) who sadly died after an accident in Nice.  Thousands of Irish voices sang ‘Stand up for the Ulsterman’ in a lovely gesture of solidarity with a fellow fan and fellow Irishman.  The tributes left at the makeshift shrine where Darren died saw the unusual sight of Irish and Ulster flags side by side. All of these examples show us that the majority of football supporters are decent human beings who keep their rivalries in context. There are always a few idiots who say or do stupid things but they represent no one but themselves. 

The Green Brigade has in the past caused heated debate among the Celtic support with some of their more overtly political displays. But credit where it is due, their social conscience and direct action in terms of promoting a culture of anti-discrimination in our society, battling the oppressive OBF Act or organising food collections at the stadium for our local Food Banks have been in keeping with the best ideals of the club they support so well. Like all decent people they don’t do it for praise or for publicity, they do it because it is the right thing to do. Similarly yesterday’s banner was a touching tribute to a wee lad so sadly lost. Football can indeed be a force for good in society as long as the decent majority prevail. I’m passionate about my club. I’d go as far to say my life would very much the poorer without Celtic but I know it’s possible to love your team without hating anyone else.

If you ever get a chance to visit St Peter’s in Rome, have a look at Michelangelo’s Pietà. Yes, it reminds us of our own mortality but also perhaps that we’re all human too and that we all have a duty to each other. When that image of the Iraqi mother and her son came into my mind it also reminded me that we also have a duty to try as best we can to stop the war mongers and to resist those who spread hate.  Now more than ever the world needs the good people to win.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Bonfire of the vanities

Bonfire of the vanities

I saw a rather grim face friend of mine approaching in Glasgow city centre back in the 1990s. We met by the old C&A corner and I asked him why he was looking so down. He fished his light summer jacket out of a carrier bag and pointed out the copious amounts of spit on the back of it. He had walked into the tail end or an Orange Parade and the followers of the bands had apparently decided that his jacket, being green, was fair game for their ire. It was sadly not uncommon to hear such tales or see my fellow Glaswegians zip up jackets to hide Celtic shirts or tuck crucifixes out of sight when they heard the drums booming. Is this the society we want?

There are several pubs I’ve been in over the years which can boast a ‘Celtic end’ and ‘Rangers end’ of the bar. One in Glasgow I used to frequent on occasion had just this set up and although it sounds a little odd to any outsider it was actually a fairly friendly place. Folk mixed and chatted away and only when Glasgow’s two big teams met was there any discernible tension. A few years back I was in this pub and found myself beside a seemingly nice chap and we discussed football and related matters. It was no problem to me that under his arm was a carrier bag containing his Rangers scarf which he intended to wear to the match that afternoon.  I’m open to talking to anyone as there are few people we meet in life we can’t learn something from.  We chatted about football and both had our differing views on the state of the game.  I held my peace as he explained why he, a working class man from a peripheral Glasgow housing estate, voted Conservative. He then moved on to his membership of the Orange Order and I was genuinely interested in his reasons for being part of the organisation which to be honest I hold in some distain. ‘The glorious revolution was the beginning of civil and religious freedom in this country.’ he informed me. 

As I listened to his extolling of the virtues of King William and the golden era of peace and harmony he brought, I got to thinking of the power of myth over factual history. Rather than ushering in a time of ‘civil and religious freedom,’ William’s victory over King James led in the end to the penal laws and institutional discrimination against the Catholic majority (and to a lesser degree, dissenting Protestants) in Ireland which to modern eyes seems appalling. Among a long list of restrictions designed to keep them in the lower echelons of society, Catholics could not vote, hold office, own a weapon, own a horse worth more than £5, attend school, practice their religion or serve in the army. Presbyterians suffered, albeit less severely, under such laws too and this led some to throw their lot in with the United Irishmen in the 1798 rebellion. The Penal laws were described by Edmund Burke as being…

 ‘’As well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.’’

It took over 200 years for the last of the penal laws to be rolled back and the last of the restrictions were finally legally abolished in the ‘Government of Ireland Act. (1920) The man I spoke to in the pub seemed oblivious to all of this as I chatted to him. Indeed his eyes glazed over and he seemed to filter out anything which might challenge his world view. I don’t know if it’s lazy thinking or simply a refusal to consider the values he had been brought up with might be wrong but either way he was disinterested in any facts I had to offer. He seemed genuine in his outlook although looking back the words of Martin Luther King seem apt…

‘’Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’’

Of course all communities and countries have their myths and folk narratives which seek to bind the group together. Often historical reality is left behind or ignored in the name of creating a narrative which suits the group. We have seen this in Ireland where the 200,000 Irishmen who fought and suffered grievously in World War One were airbrushed out of history at a time the focus of much attention was the nation’s struggle for independence from Britain. So too with the ‘brethren’ of the Orange Order who like to portray themselves as doing nothing more than exercising their right to celebrate their history and culture. Alas the celebration of this ‘culture’ is often seen as little more than empty triumphalism and the sort of exclusivism most of Europe left in the history books long ago.

A week or two ago residents of the town of Falkirk received a leaflet through the door about the upcoming Orange Parade. The leaflet started with the phrase ‘Everybody loves a parade’ and went on to describe the event which virtually brought the town of Falkirk to a standstill as a celebration of ‘religious tolerance.’ For those of us who live with these ‘celebrations’ on an annual basis, tolerance is not the word which springs to mind. Glasgow currently hosts more Orange/Loyal Order marches than Belfast and the spectacle is not edifying.  This year’s event saw Orange bands playing the racist ‘Famine Song’ on Dumbarton Road as drunken hangers on sang along. We may not yet allow the burning of Irish flags and Catholic statues on bonfires as occurs each year in the north of Ireland but nonetheless seem to allow open exhibitions of racism at the parades. Indeed ‘Lodge Blairgowrie’ in Perthshire held its opening night a year back and had a flute band playing the Famine Song. It isn’t hard to find scores of such videos on YouTube and other examples of a culture which seems to define itself by what it stands against rather than what it stands for. The reformed branch of Christianity they claim to represent is hard to discern amid the drum banging and triumphalism. Surely the followers of Christ are meant to practice forgiveness, tolerance and love not denigrate their neighbours beliefs with displays of boorish bigotry? But then these events are less about Christian fellowship and more about that ‘We are the People’ mentality which so tediously rears its head in our land.

Scotland has changed greatly in my lifetime and much of that change has been positive. Some though cling to ideas of who they are which are increasingly out of step with the modern world. Most Scots have no time for such outdated and divisive displays of tribal identity and see them as unnecessary and even embarrassing. A new idea of what being Scottish is has grown and it has nothing to do with religion, skin tone or ethnic background. It has to do with accepting values such as inclusion, fairness, decency and respect for others and their beliefs.  Some may say this article doesn’t show respect for the beliefs of those attracted to Orangeism but I would say that when it divests itself of its more overtly sectarian aspects and becomes a positive force in our society it may earn respect.  

I don’t consider myself to be a bitter man and like to think I call out bigotry wherever I see it but it really is hard to make a case for our town centres grinding to a halt so a noisy minority can celebrate long gone battles with no relevance in modern Scotland. In a free society we are bound to support the right to peaceful assembly but we are no bound to support such divisive demonstrations with tax-payers money nor pay the huge Policing bill which accompanies them. Nor should the disruption to people’s lives and businesses be tolerated.

These marches have shrunk hugely over the course of my lifetime as their relevance in people’s lives has diminished. Orangeism no longer has any real political influence and is sustained as a mostly working class sub culture. Most of the men and woman marching each summer are in the fifty plus category and that decline will surely continue. Instead of burning people’s flags or religious statues some would do better to throw silly ideas of supremacy and triumphalism onto the bonfires and accept we can be different and still be friends and neighbours.

How I’d love to see a colourful, noisy Parade each summer which celebrates Scotland and all its cultural diversity rather than this rather depressing mono-culture.  A parade we could take our children to and celebrate being Scottish no matter our origins, beliefs or culture. One which doesn’t shout ‘We are the people’ but rather reinforces the fact that we are all the people and celebrate that fact.

Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, 9 July 2016



The stern faced functionary regarded Charlie in the manner you would regard something stuck to your shoe. Her hair was tied back in a tight pony tail which lent her face a hawk like quality. ‘You were 15 minutes late Mr Donnelly and under the rules that means we have no option but to sanction you.’ Charlie looked at her with incredulity, ‘Sanction me? I’ve got a wee wan at hame, ye cannae stop my money. Have a heart for God’s sake.’ Her face didn’t change as she continued in a monotone voice, ‘I don’t make the rules Mr Donnelly, You were late so we have no option.’ Charlie looked at her, ‘I telt ye I was late because the wee yin was sick. I had tae take her tae her granny’s. How will I feed her wi nae money for six weeks?’  She handed him a leaflet outlining the sanctions process and the right to appeal. ‘You can appeal but it takes a few weeks to go through the system’ Charlie looked into her eyes before speaking in a more shrill voice ‘You people have targets for this don’t ye? Ye leave people with fuck all and go home tae yer warm hoose with no regrets.’ They woman nodded towards a security man hovering in the background. ‘John, can you escort Mr Donnelly off the premises as he is being abusive.’ Charlie looked at the woman, ‘I hope yer happy.’ She didn’t reply and looked to her paperwork as Charlie was escorted from the building. The security man sighed as he opened the door for him, ‘Sorry about this pal, I hate this crap as much as you but I need tae pay the bills.’ Charlied nodded, ‘No your fault pal, it’s those heartless bastards in there.’

Charlie Donnelly walked towards home in a slow Glasgow drizzle which seemed to reflect his mood. At Parkhead Cross he could see his old school pal Rab standing with some shady looking types. Rab, face like a jigsaw with scars, had got involved in dealing the poison which blighted the lives of so many in Glasgow’s east end and although he usually had money in his pockets he had a haggard and permanently worried look on his face. He had asked Charlie to store some of his ‘gear’ the year before and offered him £50 but Charlie knew that was a slippery slope and politely declined as he had a young kid in the house. ‘Aw right Mucker!’ Rab called to him, across the busy road. ‘How ye doin’ Rab?’ Charlie responded with a fairly fake smile as Rab’s mean faced associates looked on as if assessing Charlie. It was best to keep on good terms with such people. He headed for home and the prospect of six weeks with no money to feed himself and his daughter.

That night as he tucked his daughter into bed he told her all her favourite stories. ‘Rapunzel again!’ smiled curly haired Caitlin Donnelly as she lay, her head on her ‘Frozen’ themed pillow. ‘No more the night wee yin, time to sleep.’ He clicked out the lamp and pulled the quilt up to her chin. ‘I love you,’ he said as he kissed her lightly on the forehead, she smiled and settled to sleep clutching he dolly close to her. As she drifted off he sat for a while watching her, listening to the rise and fall of her breathing. She was everything to him and raising her on his own had been a challenge but also the greatest joy in his life. He sat on the bed regarding her for a few moments, still a little amazed that this beautiful little girl was his. ‘Night ma wee angel’ he said quietly before he slipped from the room.

Charlie laid every note and coin he possessed on the kitchen table and it wasn’t a princely sum. He had £38.45 to his name. In his wallet was his bank card, he could run the credit limit for another couple of hundred but that would need to be paid back. He could eat more at his mum’s too but the next six weeks were going to be tight and right in the middle of it was his daughter’s birthday. He glanced at his wallet noticing the green, plastic Celtic season ticket. His one extravagance was his season ticket and as he regarded it he figured quickly that it was still valid for 15 league games. He could sell on and maybe get another £150 for it. He could sell it at each individual home game and perhaps make more? He sighed, muttering to himself, ‘Oh well, can’t be going tae the game when there’s nae food in the cupboard.’

The following day Charlie dropped Caitlin off at his mum’s before heading to the Job Centre. Sanctioned or not he was still expected to look for work. He could drive and had a clean license and scanned the data base on the PC for driving jobs. The trouble was each job would have 40 or 50 applicants but he wanted to work and typed up three applications there and then. He then headed to the Forge shopping centre to pick up some groceries. Even buying the cheapest food in the store left him almost penniless. On his way out of the Forge he met his old friend Rab on his way in. ‘Aw right Charlie, getting the messages I see?’ he rasped in a voice made rough by too many cigarettes. Charlie nodded, noticing the angry red scar on Rab’s cheek which spoke of his hard life. ‘Aye Rab, no getting’ any cheaper.’ Rab nodded, ‘Mind ye can always make some good dosh doin’ a few we deliveries for me.’ Charlie shook his head, ‘I’ve got the wee yin tae look after Rab, couldnae risk it, ye know.’  Rab nodded, ‘Well the offer stands Pal, it’s easy cash and it sure beats living on dole money.’ Charlie replied quietly, ‘It’s no for me Rab.’ Rab looked into Charlie’s eyes and surprised him by smiling a little and saying, ‘You were always a good cunt Charlie.’ As Rab wandered off Charlie watched him thinking to himself that it was a strange thing to say. Charlie was sure of one thing though, getting involved in that trade was definitely not for him. The cost, to all involved, was too high.

The following Saturday Charlie pushed open the door of one of the many Celtic Pubs lining the Gallowgate. He looked around until he saw a few familiar faces in the corner and pushed through the green shirted throng. ‘Aw righ Charlie boy, left it a bit late today?’ Big Joe had the seat beside him at Celtic Park and Charlie was going one last time before selling his season ticket. ‘Aye, help up wi the traffic Joe. My Bentley broke doon.’ Joe grinned and handed Charlie a bottle of beer. He knew Charlie was rooked and arriving at the Pub so close to kick off time meant he could save face by not having to buy a round. Everyone knew he was having a hard time but no one mentioned it, he needed to keep his pride, sometimes that’s all some folk had left.

As the fans started to drift out the door and head to the game a stout man in a Celtic shirt clambered onto the stage and spoke into the microphone. ‘Right lads, the fitbaw card for the foodbank is all signed up so we can rub it oot and find oot who wins.’ The white fund raising card he held had the name of 40 UK football clubs and each club cost £2 to buy. At the top of the card was a small grey rectangle which was rubbed off with a coin to reveal the winner who would receive half the money raised. As the stout man theatrically rubbed the grey rectangle with a coin Joe turned to Charlie, ‘Bought ye a turn before ye came in. Ye never know.’ The stout man adjusted his glasses before announcing, ‘Right, the winner is York City and it’s signed up tae…’ He squinted at the name before shouting, Charlie D.’  Joe looked at Charlie, ‘Ye won ya jammy basturt! Haha. I took Celtic but I’ve never heard of them ever winning on one of those cards’  Charlie, rather shocked walked to the small stage and had £40 thrust into his hand. It was just about enough to pay for Caitlin’s birthday party with her wee pals at McDonald’s. As they set of happily for the match Charlie was smiling from ear to ear. Maybe things were going to get better.

Joe was happy for him too and Charlie would never need to know that Joe and the boys had bought every team on the card and filled all 40 boxes with Charlie’s name.  

That’s just what mates did when a pal was struggling. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Waiting for the trains

Waiting for the trains

While clearing recorded programmes from my Sky box this week I noticed I still had the two hour documentary on the Hillsborough tragedy saved. I watched it a month ago and was deeply affected by the events it described. As football fans all of us can identify times at games when we genuinely feared for our safety. The league clinching game at Celtic Park in 1988 comes to mind as Celtic unwisely didn’t make the match with Dundee all ticket. Celtic admitted to 72,000 filling a ground with a 60,800 official capacity and only the absence of fences allowed for prompt evacuation of the overcrowded areas of the Celtic end to the less packed away end. There were other games when I left the stadium with my feet barely touching the ground and I guess in some ways we were lucky.

As I watched the Hillsborough documentary again I don’t mind saying that my emotions got the better of me on a few occasions. There was genuine sadness and a few tears at the very human stories unfolding. What those families went through would touch even the hardest of hearts.  There was also anger, even rage at the establishment attempting to cover up their own failings and faults. It is now common knowledge that the Police changed statements in officers’ note books to help concoct and support a narrative which laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Liverpool supporters. Grieving families stunned at their loss were questioned about the drinking habits of their lost relatives as Police sought to shore up the ‘tanked up mob’ story which took so long to expose as the contemptable lie it was. This lie was supported by a disgracefully compliant and unquestioning media as well as politicians who clearly saw football fans as little more than the dregs of society. We all know what the Sun and other newspapers said and we all know who gave them these lies to publish. The tragedy was greatly compounded by the smears and cover ups which followed.

As I watched the documentary again I couldn’t help thinking of my own children and how I’d feel if they were caught up in such a horrendous incident. Those Hillsborough families went through hell in their fight for the truth. They faced a sneering establishment, a judicial system which tended to side with the official version of events as described by the Police and a political class which, with some honourable exceptions, wished they’d just go away. But they wouldn’t go away. They fought a battle which lasted 27 long and bitter years until the truth was finally told.

As the 2016 inquest reached its conclusion and the Jury was asked to deliberate on 14 crucial questions about what actually happened that day, the families watched with hope in their hearts that justice would finally be done. The crucial questions of Police culpability were dealt by the Jury in no uncertain manner. They found that there were many poor decisions, inaction and a complete lack of contingency planning by the Police which had a huge effect on the events of that day. Such errors and omissions were bad enough but the cover up which followed was unforgivable. Crucially the Jury exonerated the Liverpool supporters themselves from any blame for the events which occurred in the Leppings Lane end that day. Question seven asked the Jury…

Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?

The answer was a resounding ‘No!’ The families had been vindicated and at last the truth was coming out. At last the lies were unravelling, at last the families were finding justice which was delayed for so long.

One part of the documentary which really hit home was footage of family members waiting in Lime Street Station for the trains returning from Sheffield that day in 1989. Amid the confusion of the day they had no idea if their children, husbands, sisters, sons were on the trains or hurt or worse. Parents spoke of the long wait as train after train trundled into the station. For some there was the relief and joy of reunion. For others there was uncertainty and dread as the last train rolled in and their loved ones weren’t on it. One poem caught this poignant situation at Lime Street Station very well…

Waiting on the trains

Waiting on the trains from Sheffield
counting time in cigarettes smoked
in prayers silently muttered,
in fears they dare not shape with words,
Lime Street station, heavy with worry and expectation,
‘He’ll be on the next one, you wait and see,’
Coaches empty, eyes scan for familiar faces,
the lucky ones surge together, palpable relief,
they hug, cry and thank whatever god they believe in
for this mercy, this deliverance, this second birth…
Sympathetic looks as they leave the station
cast towards those still waiting, still hoping,
met in turn with almost imperceptible nods
which seem to say, ‘ good for you, you’ve got your lad back’
Scouse hearts have always had room for empathy,
The crowd thins as dread thickens,
‘He’ll be on the next one, you wait and see,’
Hours limp past as the Mersey sky darkens
Casting shadows on the hopes of those who remain,
The railway man with the sad eyes shakes his head
There will be no more trains from Sheffield tonight.

I’m glad justice may now be done but nothing can fill the void for those families affected by the tragedy. We move on but we never forget. How could we? There but for the grace of God could have been any of us in those days.  The courage and humanity of the Hillsborough families shines out like a beacon. I may have finally deleted the documentary from my Sky box but I’ll remember all my life the lies, the cover ups and the gutsy Scousers who brought the whole rotten edifice crashing down. 

Those lost on that sad day would be proud of you all.