Friday, 25 November 2016

You don’t own football

You don’t own football
In 2002 I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final at Hampden Park. It struck me as I watched Real, a team with a fine European pedigree, beat the Germans that Leverkusen were appearing in the ‘Champions’ League Final despite the fact that not once in their long history had they been Champions of Germany. It was a demonstration of how the rich and powerful in European football are increasingly calling the shots. Fourteen years later their grip on UEFA seems unbreakable but some of the supporters in smaller leagues are making their voices heard. A brilliant banner was unveiled by supporters of FC Copenhagen who, like Celtic will find their club’s future chances of qualifying for the Champions League diminished by UEFA’s upcoming changes to the qualification format.
UEFA has changed the format for qualification into the Champions league by allowing the top four clubs from the four countries with the highest co-efficient direct entry. That is to say in 2018-19 season 16 of the 32 clubs in the group stages will come from the four big leagues. (Spain, Germany, England & Italy) and the other 50 countries will scrap it out for the remaining 16 places. It would be foolish to argue for a return to the old knockout competition of the past when only the champions of each country were allowed to compete in the European Cup. However it does seem grossly unfair for the big four leagues, already gorged with money to be guaranteed even more. It will be used to suck in mercenaries from all over the world playing for hugely inflated salaries. The gap between the rich and the rest will widen and this will lead to bloated wealthy clubs becoming dismissive and condescending towards the teams from smaller leagues who find it difficult to compete. The system of capitalism we see in the world where vast wealth is increasingly in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people is being replicated in football and it is not conducive to helping the sport develop.
In similar vein, Germany’s classy striker Thomas Muller didn’t seem too impressed when a World Cup qualification tie brought the world champions to San Marino. As expected the minnows were crushed 8-0 but Muller annoyed a few locals by stating…
‘I don’t understand the point of such uneven games like these, even more so because of the crowded fixture list. I understand that for them it is special to play against the world champions, I understand also that they can only defend with tough tackling.’
San Marino’s Press Officer, Alan Gasperoni took to social media to castigate Muller and laid out in ten points why Muller is wrong…
"Dearest Thomas Muller,
You're right. The games like that on a Friday night, they're nothing. To you. On the other hand, dear Thomas, you do not need to come to San Marino for almost nothing in a weekend in which, without the Bundesliga, you could have spent with your wife on the sofa of you luxury villa or, who knows, you could have taken part in some events organised by your sponsors to bank several thousand euros. I believe you, but allow me to give 10 good reasons for which I think the San Marino-Germany match was very useful and if only you could think about it and let me know what you think:

1. It served to show you that not even against the teams as poor as ours you can't score a goal - and don't say you weren't pissed when Simoncini stopped you scoring...

2. It served to make it clear to your managers (even Beckenbauer and Rummenigge) that football is not owned by them but by of all those who love it, among which, like it or not, WE are included.

3. It served to remind hundreds of journalists from all over Europe that there are still guys who follow their dreams and not your rules.

4. It served to confirm that you Germans you will never change and that history has taught you that "bullying" is not always guarantee of victory.

5. It served to show the 200 guys in San Marino who play the game for whatever reason why their coaches ask them to always work their hardest. Who knows - maybe one day all their sacrifice will not be repaid with a game against the champions of the world.

6. It served to your Federation (and also to ours) to collect the money of image rights with which, in addition to paying you for your trouble, they can build pitches for the kids of your own country, schools, and make football stadiums safer... Our Federation, I'll let you in on a secret, is building a new football pitch in a remote village called Acquaviva. You could build it with six months of your salary, we'll do it with the rights of 90 minutes of game. Not bad right?

7. It served to a country as big as your pitch in Munich to go in the paper for a good reason, because a football match is always a good reason.

8. It served to your friend Gnabry to begin with, in the national team and scoring three goals.

9. It made some San Marinese people a little happy to remember that we have a real national team.

10. It's served to make me realise that even if you wear the most beautiful adidas kits, underneath you're always the ones that put white socks under their sandals.

Gasperoni’s rant contains a grain of truth about the increasing arrogance of those at the top of the game who have lost sight of the fact that football belongs to all and that UEFA should be promoting the game all over Europe and not just fawning to the big teams from the big leagues.
Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has warned that changes are necessary to avoid a breakaway from UEFA by elite clubs. That at the end of the day is the real driving force behind UEFA's changes to the qualifying format of the Champions League. The most successful club competition in world football and brings in huge amounts of money for UEFA and the so called elite clubs and they don't want to see that end. 
For clubs like Celtic, Copenhagen and even four times European Champions Ajax, it will be tougher to qualify for the Champions League in the future. The ‘Champions route’ Celtic successfully negotiated this year will have the number of places in the Group Stages cut from 5 to 4.  Celtic’s success in reaching the group stage was tempered by realism of what the club was likely to achieve once it got their given the huge disparity in resources. Few expected Celtic to make much of an impression in such a tough group  but they did reasonably well given that they are under new management and developing as a team. The crucial games were always those with Borussia Monchengladbach and the team did well in Germany after a disappointing home display. There are grounds for optimism though as Brendan Rodgers will undoubtedly continue to build the side up.
For Clubs like Celtic, the money they accrue from playing in the Champions League is vital to improving the side and making it competitive in Europe. The low income environment of the SPFL hampers Celtic in Europe and that is unlikely to change and UEFA needs to remember its duty to all 54 member countries and ensure that the medium and smaller leagues are encouraged to grow and not just live off the crumbs falling from the table of the rich.
If one cameo exemplified the arrogance of some in European football this week it was surely the antics of Neymar at Celtic Park. He strutted about like a petulant child, squabbling and whingeing his way through a game in which the Referee showed remarkable restraint towards him. As he trudged off at a snail’s pace the whistles and jeers of thousands echoing around the stadium I  was reminded of the exit Andreas Iniesta made at the same stadium a couple of years earlier. They are both great footballers but only one exhibits the class to match their ability and that is why Iniesta was applauded off the field and Neymar jeered.
My message to players like Neymar would perhaps paraphrase the man from San Marino, ‘You don’t own football, it is owned by all of us who love it.’ UEFA would do well to remember that too.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

There’s a magic here

There’s a magic here

For Jazz Thompson stepping inside the front door of Celtic Park and out of the cold November air was a real thrill. Of course he had visited the stadium more times than he cared to remember to back the team but for the first time in his 40 years of life he was walking in the front door and he was savouring every second. He glanced around the foyer at the various Celtic related artwork on display, taking it all in before a smart woman sitting at a desk scanned his apparel and smiled at him, ‘Come for the sleepover? Can I have your name please?’  He placed his sleeping bag and backpack on the floor beside the desk, ‘It’s Jazz, eh… James Thompson.’ She scanned a list in front of her before running a pencil line through his name, ‘OK Mr Thompson, just go through to the board room and you’ll be told what to do.’

Jazz followed a tall man through the door into the board room and looked around with a smile on his face. On the wall to his left was a long trophy cabinet full of cups, shields and mementos of bygone games. He walked to the part of the display he had seen in a thousand photographs. A Celtic and Inter Milan shirt flanked a shining full sized European Cup. As he studied the scene with a smile on his face he caught a glimpse of his reflection on the polished glass. His youthful looks were gone but the grizzled face he saw looking back at him had character and spoke of a life that had seen its share of troubles. He had come a long way in the past few years and being here tonight was his way of saying thanks to those who had helped him. Sleeping out to raise funds to help others was also tinged with a little irony as just a few years earlier he was one of the ‘others’ who had hit rock bottom and found himself on the streets. Those hard months had marked him for life and had introduced him to an underclass he barely knew existed. It also introduced him to both sides of human nature as he had met with kindness and cruelty, help and humiliation, compassion and indifference.  It was the indifference which hurt more.

His spiral down to the streets wasn’t the usual tale of alcohol or drugs but one of an undiagnosed mental illness which was now thankfully under control. Jazz smiled at his reflection again before turning to face the room which was now filling with chattering people of all ages, each carrying the necessary things they’d need to get through a night under the stars at Celtic Park. A familiar face approached him, hand outstretched, ‘Jazz, nice to see you. I never expected our paths would cross here.’ Jazz smiled a genuine smile, ‘Andy! How are you, mate?’ The two friends talked of old times with genuine affection. Andy and his organisation had helped Jazz when he was at his lowest ebb. They had got him a warm bed in that fierce winter of 2010 when he was sleeping in a disused warehouse, shivering in the sub-zero temperatures. More importantly, they had got him the medical help he required and that had led to a diagnosis and treatment of his condition; a condition which explained his more bizarre behaviour which had cost him his job, friends and finally his long standing partner, Annie. He didn’t blame her for asking him to leave. He knew his behaviour was impossible to live with in those days. As the doors closed to him and the faces turned away the downward spiral began.

Andy was called to the front of the room to give a short speech and left Jazz with a warm hug. ‘Enjoy tonight mate, it’s great to see you back on your feet.’ Jazz smiled at him, ‘Thank you, Andy, great to see you too.’ Jazz watched Andy speaking thinking that he was one of those people who genuinely helped others because it was the right thing to do. He didn’t want praise or admiration; he simply wanted to help and would never look down on others unless he was helping them up. When the speeches were over, the hundred or so hardy souls sleeping out headed towards the hallowed pitch. As Andy walked down the Celtic Park tunnel he felt an unexpected thrill pass through him. All the Celtic greats had walked this walk. The first sight they would have seen in days past was the packed terrace of the Jungle, he remembered so well from his youth, waiting to embrace them. For the modern players the big North Stand with its 26,000 capacity would be quite a sight too. Andy stepped onto the track and looked around him. A younger woman behind him looked at the huge empty cavern of Celtic Park and said simply, ‘Wow!’ He nodded, ‘Wow indeed,’ before heading along the track towards the Jock Stein Stand and spreading his groundsheet on the track. He climbed into his sleeping bag and settled down. Before sleep took him he looked up at the green, luminous ‘Celtic Football Club 1888’ sign which seem to hang like a beacon in the dark winter sky. He smiled and closed his eyes as dark shades of sleep wrapped themselves around him.

Jazz could hear laughter and someone shouting, ‘Your ball Kenny!’ He sat up and opened his eyes as bright sunshine startled and warmed him in equal measure. He stood and looked at Celtic Park as it was in his youth; the old Jungle silent and empty and to his left was the Celtic end where he stood as a child with his father. On the field he could see 20 or so players in training tops go through various drills as the unmistakeable gruff tones of Jock Stein barked out his orders. The blue sky told him it was summer and as he watched Stanton, McGrain, Dalglish and many other familiar faces laugh and joke their way through training he smiled to himself. ‘You’re dreaming Jazz! Don’t wake up just take it all in.’ A white football rolled across the pitch towards him and he stopped it with his right foot. A sweating, panting player ran towards him, ‘That baw mate!’ he called. Jazz side footed the ball back to the unmistakable figure of Tommy Burns who trapped it instantly and turned back to training.

As the players continued their workout Jazz glanced across at the houses in Janefield Street peeping over the neck of terracing which once joined the Celtic end to the Jungle. If he was dreaming then this had to be 1976 or 1977 and that meant that somewhere beyond the stadium wall was his childhood home and his late father and mother. As he looked wistfully beyond the stadium a player who appeared to be jogging around the track stopped behind him, his laboured breathing making Jazz turn. ‘Hard work, pre-season eh?’ Jazz smiled at the familiar figure of Johnny Doyle. The Celtic player straightened up and smiled at him, ‘I don’t care about that pal, if I get tae wear the hoops I’ll train all day and every day.’  Jazz nodded, ‘That’s why we love you Johnny, you’re one of us. We always know you give all you’ve got.’ Johnny smiled, ‘You better believe it pal, I dreamed as a wee boy that one day I would play for the Celts. Just shows you if you work hard sometimes yer dreams can come true.’ Before Jazz could reply the unmistakable voice of Jock Stein echoed towards them. ‘Move yer arse Doyle, we’re no paying you tae gab tae fans.’ Doyle winked at Jazz and smiled, ‘His bark is worse than his bite, believe me he loves Celtic as much as I do.’ With that the player set off on another lap of the Celtic Park track.

Jazz felt the air begin to cool and the light dim and knew his dream was ending. He closed his eyes and took in one last breath of the warm summer air of long ago. It infused him with nostalgia and reinforced his love of Celtic. It wasn’t just the players, the team or the stadium; it was the whole community, the friendships, the happy days of victory, the stoic defiance in the hard times. It was the countless threads which bound him to this club, the thousands of memories and experiences which he had stored in his mind. As he drifted towards consciousness he heard an echoing voice calling out, ‘Come on Kenny pass the baw, yer a Celtic player, it’s all about the team!’ He smiled, that was big Jock alright and as usual he was right. He felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes. It was Andy, ‘Alright Jazz, the folk are heading in for some breakfast now. It’s 6am and it’s been a long night.’ Jazz sat up and looked around the dark stadium, a smile on his face. ‘That was a great sleep, Andy. I love this place.’ His old friend nodded, ‘so do I, Jazz, there’s a magic here.’ As Jazz rolled up his sleeping bag and walked towards the tunnel he glanced towards the corner of the stadium where the old jungle used to meet the Celtic end and mumbled quietly to himself, ‘Aye Andy, there’s a magic here alright.’

An hour later as Jazz was leaving Celtic Park and stepping into the chill of a Scottish winter morning. Annie was waiting in the car for him. When he sorted his life out he had sought her out to apologise and explain and she had understood. For that he thanked God. He glanced at the statue of Jock Stein to his left and smiled, ‘Alright big man, thanks for it all. Wee Johnny was right about you. You’re Celtic to the core.’ He headed towards the car as its lights flickered on and sat in the warmth of the passenger seat. ‘How was it?’ Annie smiled at him. Jazz hugged her and whispered in her ear, ‘It was... magical.’ 

As the car headed for the road which ran under the North Stand and which once upon a time was called Janefield Street, Jazz looked at all the images of Celtic players down the decades emblazoned on the panels of the Jock Stein stand. There beside Jimmy Johnstone, Dixie Deans and Kenny Dalglish was Johnny Doyle. As Jazz looked on, the words from his dream came back to him… ‘If I get tae wear the hoops I’ll train all day and every day.’  Johnny would have meant it too.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Ordinary Angels

Ordinary angels

When I was a boy my mum moved us into a long gone and extremely run down tenement building in Edmund Street in Glasgow’s east end. It sat beside Tennents brewery and the smell of fermenting beer pervaded the area. As a woman on her own with six children she couldn’t afford to be choosy about where to live and I recall walking around this musty, dingy old flat thinking even then that it was pretty much the bottom of the heap. We helped move our meagre possessions into the flat before heading over to my Granny’s house for our usual Sunday lunch with her. Sadly on that day she was out and we trooped back to Edmund Street in the drizzle to spend a long and to be honest, hungry Sunday. There was no food in the house and no money until the following day to buy any.

That evening as we sat around the old coal fire the door was knocked and I answered it. A man stood there holding a large box and handed it to me saying, ‘Could you give this to your mother?’ before he turned and headed down the dark stairs. I could barely hold the box as it was so heavy in my young arms. I staggered into the living room and bumped it down onto the floor as my mystified mother and curious siblings looked on. My Mother opened it and to our delight it was full of food; from tins of fruit to cakes, from chicken to tuna and how we feasted on that dark, rainy night long ago. It was as if an angel had arrived at our hour of need. My Mother used to tell me about those good folk she called ‘ordinary angels’ who do good things and restore our faith in humanity. This ordinary angel was from the St Vincent de Paul Society and to this day if I see them collecting I always make a donation. That good deed all those years ago made a huge impression on my young mind.

Flash forward to last night’s sleep-out organised by the Celtic Charity Foundation. I got into conversation with one of the members of the Foundation who told me that while he was delivering envelopes containing some money to families struggling in one of our poorer areas, he knocked on a door and it was opened by a burly man dressed in a Rangers top. As per instruction he said quietly and simply, ‘This is from the Celtic charity Foundation.’ The man looked mystified and opened the envelope and realising what was happening, his face softened and tears filled his eyes. It was, my friend told me, a very emotional moment as the man realised that in a harsh world some people still cared.

Those two examples of the good that our ‘ordinary angels’ do in life are separated by four decades but both have made lasting impressions. The work of the Celtic FC Foundation in supporting community based projects in the areas of Health, Equality, Learning and Poverty (HELP) is impressive and has seen over £10m raised over the years to help those less fortunate. Much of this has been raised by ordinary Celtic supporters, many of them far from wealthy, who see clearly that their club was founded on decent principles and wish to stay true to them.

Last night’s sleep-out demonstrated to all who were there some of the harsh realities of homelessness. Of course we all had warm beds to return home to when it was over but even the hardiest there could feel the bitter cold and imagine the reality of facing that each night. It was suggested that those at the event might consider leaving their sleeping bags so that they might be utilised by the Invisibles charity which works hard with the homeless in Glasgow. As I left Celtic Park I put mine on the huge pile which was testimony to the decency of those at the event. One friend left hers despite only buying it the day before for the sleep-out.

A better man than me once said, ‘The poor will always be with you,’ and perhaps there is some truth in that. However, that doesn’t mean they should be ignored and become invisible. We live in a wealthy country and the inequalities we see around us are man-made and as such can be rectified if we choose. Those less fortunate deserve justice not charity but while we await a more just society many do what they can to help others.
129 years after Celtic Football Club was founded to help alleviate poverty and hunger in the east end of Glasgow we are still struggling to eradicate it. There is food bank a few hundred yards from Celtic Park and any walk around the area will demonstrate that the poor are indeed still with us but so too is the spirit of the founding fathers (and mothers) of Celtic. As long as there are ordinary angels who care enough to act there will always be hope.

A long time ago a good man wrote… ‘A football club will be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and the unemployed.’ As we left Celtic Park in the dark of a Scottish winter morning we passed his statue. I’m sure he would have smiled and nodded approvingly knowing that his people haven’t forgotten his values and still keep faith with the past.

Well done and thank you to all who took part in the sleep out and to all who supported them.   You are the ordinary angels this old world needs so badly.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Come on the Dubs

Come on the Dubs

Monday 23rd October 1916 had been yet another brutal and bloody for the Dublin Fusiliers as they assaulted the German positions at the village of Les Boeufs in northern France. Bloody bayonet charges towards the German held positions had seen hundreds of the Regiment cut down. Entrenched enemy machine guns and gun pits raked the attackers with withering fire every time they attempted to storm the position causing huge casualties. Any gains were immediately subject to ferocious German counter attacks. With all of the officers dead, the attack began to falter.  Springburn man Robert Downie could see the desperate situation he and his comrades were in. He decided that he would act and stood in full view of the enemy and roared to the mostly Irish soldiers around him, ‘Come on the Dubs!’ and charged towards the enemy position. The exhausted soldiers rallied to him and followed him into a hail of fire. This time they succeeded in overwhelming the German defences and although wounded, Downie took one of the machine guns which had caused such misery to his comrades. The brutality of the war on the western front is demonstrated in a report by one of Downie’s senior officers of what went on during that bloody day…

‘We had one big battle and simply went for the Hun. The Fusiliers saw red and simply got at him with the bayonet. The Germans fought like beasts at bay, actual hand to hand fighting.  I gave orders that no prisoners were to be taken ... in case of a counter attack and it takes too many men away to send escorts to the rear with them ... so you can imagine what happened with the bayonet.'

Despite being awarded a Victoria Cross for his courage by the King himself, Robert Downie never spoke of the events of that bloody day again. When asked what he received his medals for this modest man would reply with a smile, ‘I shot the cook.’  Upon his return to Glasgow, hundreds were waiting at Central Station and carried him from the station shoulder high but there was no 'land fit for heroes for many returning from the war. His street in the poor working class surroundings of Springburn in north Glasgow was covered in flags and bunting and he was welcome home in grand manner but like many he had to pick up the threads of life after the war. His courage was celebrated by all who knew him but at heart Robert was a modest man who disliked the fuss made about his war record. He had over the course of World War one been wounded on five occasions and suffered the effects of gas on another.  As well as winning his country’s highest award for valour, the V.C, he was also awarded the Military Medal, the Russian Order of St George and was mentioned in despatches on two occasions. Whatever our modern eyes make of the slaughter or World War One, there is no doubting that Robert Downie, the modest man from Springburn, was a man of upmost courage.

Robert was given a civic reception in Springburn hall as well as being presented with a gold watch from his former school, St Aloysius. The Glasgow branch of the United Irish League also held a reception for him to mark his bravery. In those complicated times the struggle for Irish independence did not stop those of a nationalist outlook recognising the courage of so many of their countrymen in the killing fields of France. The Glasgow-Irish community provided tens of thousands of young men who fought in the war. This was the case all over the UK as regiments such as the Tyneside Irish, Manchester Irish and London Irish testify. Indeed men like James Connolly and Tom Barry first learned to hold a gun in the British Army. For Robert Downie, the Dublin Fusiliers was his chosen regiment, no doubt in honour of his father’s Irish roots.

One of thirteen children, Robert knew well the harshness of life in the industrial heart of early twentieth century Glasgow. Springburn produced locomotives which were exported all over the world at the famous Caledonian Railway works provided employment for many. The war called upon many of those workers to head off to France and many did. Two of Downie’s brothers were to perish in the mud and blood of Flanders. Indeed Carleston Street in Springburn, where he lived, had seen 16 men killed in the war and five return home minus limbs. This was a sad statistic repeated in towns and villages all over Scotland. In those days the psychological damage caused by war was seldom mentioned let alone treated.

By 1919 there was a downturn in the labour market as demand for munitions and other war supplies dried up. Many were thrown out of work and the more socialist minded men of the 'Red Clydeside' era called for better conditions and more work to be created. At one huge gathering in George Square the Police baton charged protesters some of whom responded with a barrage of bottles. It was an ugly day in Glasgow as the batons flailed and the bottles flew. Scottish Secretary, Robert Munro, panicked fearing a full scale 'Bolshevik uprising' and called on London to send in troops. Glasgow was flooded with truck loads of soldiers and tanks rumbled through the streets. London was showing that it would be utterly ruthless if there was any sign of revolt. Returning soldiers like Robert Downie must have wondered if this was the land they had fought for.

Life after the war was not easy for Robert but he settled to raising his family and following the fortunes of his favourite football team. Robert loved Celtic and would have seen good times and bad as Maley’s side took on the emerging Rangers of Bill Struth in the 1920s and 30s. He would have seen men like John Thomson, Patsy Gallagher and Jimmy McGrory play. He would have also watched Stein, Tully and Evans play in the 1950s and then watch the emergence of the Lisbon Lions. He was a groundsman at Celtic Park and for many years a turnstile operator at the Stadium. Few of the countless thousands who paid their money and clicked into the ground would have guessed that the quiet spoken man taking their cash held a Victoria Cross.

Robert lived long enough to see Jock Stein revitalise Celtic and lead them to European glory. He passed away in April 1968 in the week Bobby Lennox scored with the last kick of the game to defeat Morton at Celtic Park and all but seal the 1968 league championship. He would have liked that.

Robert was a man who combined great courage with great modesty and his life-long love of Celtic gave him enormous pleasure. His Victoria Cross was gifted by him to Celtic Football Club and remains in the club’s possession.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A time of smiles

A Time of Smiles

Glasgow 2016
Andy McGee sat in silence in the back of the sleek funeral car as it inched its way up the small road which led to the two small chapels in Daldowie crematorium. He glanced at a wooden notice board by the roadside on his left and saw there the familiar name of his father. It read; ‘East Chapel 10.30 Thomas McGee.’ A slow drizzle was falling, even the brooding Glasgow sky seemed to be weeping for old Tommy who had reached the end of his journey. As family and friends trooped into the chapel, Andy waited with his sons and nephews to do their duty for old Tommy. The Undertaker spoke quietly as he instructed them on what to do. They lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and walked slowly towards the chapel. As they carefully negotiated the steps at the front doors a familiar song drifted out the door to meet them. Andy felt tears well as the words of the song seemed to caress them, tell them it was alright, old Tommy was fine, he was beyond pain now. They entered the chapel and the song seemed to fill the air….

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm, there's a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown…
They placed Tommy on the plinth as instructed and took their seats as the song continued. The song was fitting, not only in its uplifting lyric but also because old Tommy had sung it a million times as he followed his beloved Celtic all over. Andy’s mind travelled back many years to a time he and his father had shared in those magical days when time was long and all things seemed possible….

Glasgow May 1967
Twelve year old Andy McGee held tightly to his Father’s strong hand as the big propellers of the plane began to rotate noisily outside the window. Tommy McGee smiled encouragingly at him, ‘Don’t worry son, these things are safer than a trip in yer grandad’s car,’ As the plane thundered and vibrated before beginning to taxi along the runway, Andy closed his eyes and in his head mumbled the words his teacher had taught him at school: “Oh my good angel, whom God has appointed to be my guardian, enlighten and protect, direct and govern me, who have been entrusted to you by the Divine Mercy. Amen.” He had been excited about the prospect of flying for the first time but that had given way to trepidation as the date approached. For Andy like so many other people on the flight, this was their first trip on a plane and as it accelerated along the runway more than a few were wearing anxious frowns. As the wheels lifted off the tarmac there was a muted roar of relief. Somewhere behind Andy a lone voice started a soft chant which a few others took up… ‘We’re on our way to Lisbon, we shall not be moved-We’re on our way to Lisbon, we shall not be moved.’ So they were.

As the plane climbed into the azure sky and left Glasgow behind Andy breathed more easily and glanced out of the small window at the fields of Scotland spread out beneath him like a patchwork quilt. Lisbon! He had dreamed of it since the night they beat Dukla at Celtic Park! Now it was a reality, he was really going! He smiled up at his father, ‘Thanks Da,’ His old man smiled back at him his eyes a little moist, ‘Wouldn’t have missed it for the world son.’ The plane banked left and climbed higher into white clouds obscuring the view of the land of their birth. It then swung south and headed for Portugal and Celtic’s date with destiny.

They had come so far in this last couple of years. Jock had taken a team of perennial losers and in the space of two years had won two titles, two league cups and a Scottish cup and now as thousands of their supporters headed for Lisbon, they were close to becoming the Champions of Europe. It was an incredible and exhilarating time to be a Celtic fan. Tommy McGee looked at his excited son’s face as he peered out the small plane window at the clouds. Celtic meant so much to him, that much was clear. He remembered taking Andy to his first game when he was seven years old and Celtic had demonstrated that day all the inconsistencies which plagued Mr McGrory’s team in those days. It had been a cup tie against Third Lanark at a packed Celtic Park. The attack had been magnificent and scored 4 goals while defensive lapses had cost the side 4 goals as the game ended in an exciting but frustrating draw. Andy had talked excitedly about the game all the way home. He was hooked just as his old man had been when he had gone with his Dad to see Celtic win the Empire Exhibition cup. That was the way it was; Celtic was introduced to each new generation and most fell in love with those hooped shirts. Most felt that magical attraction which withstood good times and bad and became lifelong Celts.

Less than 3 hours later the plane banked and descended in brilliant sunshine over the shimmering sea off the Portuguese coast and headed for Lisbon which sprawled along the shore, the spires of a hundred churches visible from the plane window. Andy watched transfixed, ‘Look, Da! Look, we’re here.’  Tommy McGee nodded, ‘We are indeed son, let’s hope Jock and the boys make the trip worthwhile.’ His smiling son glanced at him, ‘They will Da, they will. I’ve been saying my prayers every night.’ Tommy McGee smiled, if only life were that simple. The plane landed with a bump a few minutes later and the excited passengers stepped through the open door onto the steep steps feeling a blast of heat hit them from the warm Portuguese sun. This was it, the supporters would do all they could to drive Celtic on but it was up to Jock and the team to write the most glorious page in Celtic’s history or be remembered as a very good side but not a great one.  Tommy McGee held Andy’s hand as they walked across the tarmac to the terminal building. He looked at the excited face of his son and thought to himself, ‘please Celtic, don’t let him down, don’t let any of us down…’

He needn’t have worried. Celtic’s date with destiny was written in the stars. They would rise to the challenge as they had to so many over the decades. This was their time, their shining moment of glory and they would not fail.

Glasgow 2016
After old Tommy’s funeral they family and friends had gathered to drink, laugh, cry and remember.  They told stories and anecdotes of old Tommy and a life well lived. Often the tales revolved around his trip to Lisbon with Andy 49 years earlier when they had watched the Lions maul Inter Milan. Tommy knew how important family was and instilled that in Andy. He saw the wisdom of his father’s outlook when he felt the support and love family could give each other in difficult times like today. It was a bittersweet time, a time of smiles, a time of sorrow but also a time of pride. As the laughter and songs filled the room Andy got into conversation with his friend Phil, a good guy even if he and Andy were on different sides of the Glasgow football fence, ‘Ye going tae the game tonight, Andy?’ Andy nodded, ‘Aye Phil, this Group is the hardest ever but we’ll give it a go.’ Phil smiled, ‘Still think Celtic can match a team that cost £500 million tae put together?’  Andy nodded, ‘Better teams than Manchester City have been beat at Celtic Park. Celtic will do OK.’ Phil remained sceptical and smiled, ‘I think you’ll be lucky to escape with a 3-0 gubbing.’ Andy looked at his friend, ‘Oh Ye of little faith.’

Later that night as Celtic Park hummed and seethed with noise and passion, Andy took his seat in the Jock Stein stand with his two sons. The roar greeting the Champions League anthem was utterly deafening. He glanced around the stadium at these incredible supporters who had made this club and continued to infuse it with energy. He hoped in some way his old man could watch what was happening. As the game got underway it was clear that Manchester City were a little spooked by the racket. A couple of minutes into the game a free kick to Celtic was glided wide right to James Forrest who hit it back across goal. Erik Sviatchenko met it with his head and it glanced of the body of Moussa Dembele and into the net! Celtic Park erupted like a volcano; a huge roar split the dark, damp Glasgow sky. Celtic were ahead and the wealthy aristocrats of Manchester City were learning an old lesson. You write Celtic off at your peril.

In the Jock Stein Stand, Andy was hugging his sons, feeling somehow that his old man was there too, savouring it all as he had done countless times over his lifetime. ‘That one’s for you Da!’ he thought as he wiped a tear from his eye. ‘Come on Celtic!’ he roared, ‘Let’s do it!’