Saturday, 22 April 2017

The ones you don’t notice

The ones you don’t notice

With Celtic due at Hampden for a vital Scottish Cup Semi-Final on Sunday I got chatting to an old friend who reminded me of the long list of refereeing decisions down the years which he felt had gone against Celtic and cost them the game. He’s not the sort of man who goes in for conspiracy theories but when he laid a few facts out it did seem the Hoops had had more than their fair share of poor calls against them. He listed the bizarre display by the Referee in the 1970 Scottish cup final which saw Aberdeen awarded a penalty after a driven cross struck Murdoch on the shoulder, a goal from Lennox disallowed after the goalkeeper dropped the ball at his feet and a clear penalty denied after Lennox was chopped down by Martin Buchan when through on goal. He cited John Hartson’s ‘goal’ in the 2003 League Cup Final which was wrongly disallowed for offside, Josh Meekings hand ball as Celtic led Inverness 1-0 in the Semi Final and the Ross County player with his arms clearly wrapped around Craig Gordon at a corner which led to a headed goal for the Staggies. He then listed a host of incidents in Old Firm games from Cadete’s disallowed goal to a succession of non-awarded penalties. He asked me to give him examples of big decisions which went Celtic’s way in cup finals or semi-finals. I struggled to name any. Just as I thought he had exhausted his list of perceived injustices he brought up the 1986 League Cup Final.

For those of you too young to remember that game it was a match packed with controversy played out in a raucous atmosphere in front of 74,000 fans. Rangers had Graham Souness in charge for his first final and English Internationals Chris Woods and Terry Butcher had arrived to signal the big spending days had started at Ibrox. Celtic came into the match a few days after a bruising encounter with a Dynamo Kiev side which was brilliant and brutal in equal measure. That Kiev team contained 9 of the Soviet Union’s starting 11 including the world class Oleg Blokhin but were not shy about leaving the boot in. One savage tackle left Tommy Burns out of football for six months and he would be missed in the League Cup Final.  

The Referee at Hampden was David Syme and for the most part he let the game flow although his booking of players for innocuous offences led to problems later in the game. Celtic looked the better side for much of the match and Mo Johnston struck the inside of the post in the first half. Rangers scored after a ball broke to Durrant in the box in 62 minutes but Celtic then pressed them back with McClair hitting the bar before the same player fired an unstoppable shot high into the Rangers net. It was goal of almost poetic beauty. He picked up a pass 25 yards from goal before unleashing a shot like the stone from a sling. The ball arrowed into the top corner of the net with diving Woods well beaten, it looked like Celtic would have the ascendency going into the closing period of the game. Then with 5 minutes to go Rangers were awarded a penalty. Aitken was adjudged to have fouled Butcher as he defended a cross. It was one of those decisions the Ref could have given either way as they pushed and jostled each other in the box. While Aitken did tug Butcher’s shirt, the big Englishman was no innocent party. That decision left Celtic feeling hard done by but things took a bizarre turn when Mo Johnston was sent off for a clash with full back Munroe. It was one of those head to head confrontations which were not uncommon in the more physical world of 1980s football. The Referee gave Munroe a yellow and Johnston a red; as he jogged from the field he blessed himself in an act more designed to annoy Rangers fans than signify his religious fervour.

The official was then seemingly struck by a coin from the crowd and bizarrely turned around and red carded the nearest Celtic player, Tony Shepherd. The stunned young player refused to go and argued quite correctly that he didn’t touch the official. Syme lost all composure and held the red card high as he repeatedly and rather theatrically pointed to the dressing room, demanding Shepherd leave the field. Celtic players were aghast at this and Shepherd himself picked up a coin from the turf and showed it to the Referee who realising that he had made an utter fool of himself changed his mind. That incident with Shepherd is very telling; the Referee was prepared to send a Celtic player off for an offence he couldn’t have seen as it didn’t actually happen.

The game ended in uproar and Celtic manager Davie Hay was utterly furious at the actions of the Referee. He said in the aftermath of the game…

‘If it was up to me our application to join the English game would be made tomorrow. It always seems to be that when we play the top teams the controversial decisions go against Celtic.’

The tabloid press had a field day lambasting Celtic’s ‘indiscipline’ and while Mo Johnston was foolish getting involved in with Munroe, the team hadn’t been particularly out of control. They had merely reacted as any human being would in circumstances where they feel they are being treated unfairly. Davie Hay was fined by the SFA for his comments about the Referee. Rangers' manager, Souness had his first trophy as Boss at Ibrox and commented after the game…

Celtic was slightly the better team but at the end of the day it’s all about the team which scores the goals.’

For the Celtic fans leaving Hampden the manner of the winning goal and subsequent actions of the Referee left a feeling that an injustice had been done to their side.

That feeling that the prejudices Celtic faced in the early decades of the club’s existence still lingered has never really ended for many supporters, Willie Maley in his fine history of Celtic (1888-1938) writes on more than one occasion of players being aggrieved at the less than fair officiating of some of their games. The ‘Flag flutter’ of the early 1950s was another episode during which the footballing authorities seemed to be denying Celtic natural justice. Jock Stein was positive that some match officials were anti-Celtic and wasn’t slow to tell them. Supporters point to incidents over the years such as Jim Farry’s inexplicable hold up in registering Jorge Cadete to play at a vital period in the season. Farry was eventually sacked for gross misconduct but only after two internal enquiries had cleared him. It took the doggedness Fergus McCann and his QC to get the truth out in the open. In more modern times the Dallas email, containing an anti-Catholic joke cost him his job and then there was the strange case of Linesman Steven Craven who quit after the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ incident at Tannadice. He later stated that the Referee had instructed him to lie to Neil Lennon about a controversial penalty incident involving Gary Hooper. Scottish Referees went on strike shortly after this incident and it was noted with some irony that the Israeli officials who handled Celtic’s game in their absence were excellent.

Such incidents reinforce the so called ‘paranoia’ of some Celtic fans. Supporters of other clubs will argue that incompetence rather than bias is at the root of many Refereeing decisions. Pointing out that in the week Celtic were denied a win after Schalk’s preposterous dive at Ross County that Motherwell were awarded a goal when the ball clearly didn’t cross the line. In the parochial and clannish world of Scottish football it can be hard to convince many supporters of Celtic that the blunders they see aren’t part of a general disdain of the club from some officials. In a recent TV Documentary, Terry Butcher stated that he was the first Rangers Captain who wasn’t a Mason. Images surfaced online in the wake of this admission of a Rangers' Captain of the past greeting match officials with what was claimed to be Masonic handshakes. All of this further fed the flames of suspicion which is unhelpful to the Scottish game.

Each of us must make a rational judgement about the reasons Celtic has had some rough calls against them in big matches. My view is that historically officials were products of the society around them. There was certainly much prejudice against the Irish Catholic community in Scotland in the past, even the Church of Scotland demanded their expulsion at one point in a 1920s report entitled ‘The menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish nationality.’ Celtic, seen by many as the most visible representation of the Irish in Scotland was unlikely to escape prejudice on occasion. This prejudice undoubtedly lingers on in some dark corners of Scottish society although much diminished from previous times.

The modern Referee is scrutinised by a dozen TV Cameras and judged by watching officials in the stand as well as a critical and unforgiving crowd. To dispel any lingering doubts about impartiality they should whenever possible embrace modern technology to help them with big calls. Few fans would grudge a momentary hold up in a game while a fourth official checks a TV monitor and informs the Referee especially if the right decision is reached. It works well in rugby and ensures that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. I have refereed school football and made a few mistakes with decisions. It’s a tough job, more so in the fast paced professional game where some players are willing to cheat and con the Referee.

Whatever happens tomorrow at Hampden, I hope we remember the game for footballing reasons and aren’t debating contentious decisions which altered the outcome of the game. I hope it’s a game remembered for good football, goals, exciting incidents and of course a Celtic win.

As my old man used to say, ‘The best Referees are the ones you don’t notice.’

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A thousand miles from Paradise

A thousand miles from Paradise

I glanced briefly at my watch on Saturday and it told me that it was about 4pm local time. I knew that being an hour ahead of the time in Glasgow that Celtic would be kicking off in their SPFL match against Kilmarnock about then. I don’t normally like missing games or at least watching then online but on this particular Saturday the football was far from my mind. I was standing with a tour guide waiting to be shown inside the darkly iconic and infamous ‘gate of death’ at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum on the site of the former Nazi concentration camp. It sits uneasily in the sleepy Polish countryside some 30 miles from Krakow and there is a stillness and brooding quality to the place. As the crow flies, it is about a thousand miles from Paradise but in many ways I was in a different world when I visited.

Having read countless books on the Holocaust over the years I had a good idea of what to expect but it isn’t until the physical reality of the place is there in front of you that you begin to sense the sheer scale of the wickedness which occurred here in the war years. A railroad cattle truck stands alone and forlorn on the rail track beside the selection ramp. It represents the hundreds if not thousands of such cattle trucks brought to Auschwitz from all over Europe, packed with those the Nazis had marked out for ‘special handling.’ At one point on the selection ramp there is a big black and white photograph showing an SS Officer sending a long column of people further along the ramp while a smaller group are entering the Women’s camp behind him. The larger group; the old, the young, the infirm, women with children, are walking towards Crematorium 2 where their fate awaits. The excellent Tour guide, a young Polish woman, asked visitors standing in front of this image to look around them. It then becomes clear in an instant that you are standing on the exact spot that SS man occupied more than 70 years earlier when he decided who lived for a while longer and who died that day.

Following the path for around 300 more yards, one comes to the remains of crematorium 2. The long undressing area leads to the gas chamber and crematoria facilities. The SS blew the structure up in January 1945 as the sounds of the Red Army’s artillery could be heard approaching from the east. Auschwitz is a strange place. In this few acres of Poland around a million people perished. The Nazis in their insanity transported them from as far afield as Greece, Denmark, Holland and France to this corner of Poland. Most of them never left.

As I travelled back to Krakow through the farms, fields and forests of southern Poland there was a fairly sombre mood on the mini bus. How could it be otherwise? I got into a quiet conversation with a man from Sweden who said, ‘That place should be preserved for all time as a warning about where hatred can lead us.’ I had to agree with him. Most good people know we should never forget these events and that platitudes and nice words aren’t enough to stop those who spread hate in our societies.

I’ll let the following photographs speak about the dark roads we human beings walk when we are seduced by hatred. They do so far more eloquently than my words ever could.

A thousand miles from Paradise these things went on. It’s everyone’s business to see that it doesn’t happen again.

Used Zyklon B Canisters found at Auschwitz

20,000 shoes belonging to those transported for 'resettlement'

Polish prisoners with date of arrival & death

Maria and Czeslava Kajewska, Twins aged 15

Barbara Smieszek

Arbeit Macht Frei: 'Work sets you free'

Pots and other cooking utensils brought by prisoners

Shoes of an unknown child

Execution wall in Block 11

Barracks block in women's camp

Sleeping arrangements in women's barrack: 4-6 to each level

A scale model of crematorium 2

Remembering a family from a street in Krakow

Memorial stone to Krakow's lost 70,000 Jews

The end of the line. Mankind's lowest point.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Black Arrow

The Black Arrow

Some years ago I watched the excellent American Documentary series ‘Eyes on the prize’ which told the story of the struggle of African Americans to exercise their civil rights. One episode told the story of 14 year old Emmet Till, an African American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was said to have whistled at a white woman in a store, an action which was to cost him his life. It seems incredible to us today that people were prepared to kill a teenage boy for nothing more than whistling at a woman but in the America of the 1950s such things went on. Despite admitting taking Emmet away on the night of his death, his killers were acquitted by an all-white Jury in under two hours. Emmet’s death was the third lynching in five months in Mississippi.

It could be argued that the sort of racism which existed in America then is still around but what isn’t is the State framework of Laws which allowed it to thrive and offered it a veneer of legality. The ‘Jim Crow’ laws fostered segregation and  the sort of second class citizenship which stunted the lives of many African Americans, particularly in the southern states of the union. Segregated washrooms, bus seats, cinemas and schools made a mockery of the Constitution which stated that ‘all men are created equal.’

It was into this society that Gil Heron came to ply his trade as a footballer although as an all-round athlete he was adept at cricket and boxing too. The young Jamaican had shown considerable prowess in front of goal as he became the top scorer in the North American Professional Soccer League while playing for the Detroit Wolverines. He was no stranger to racism, obvious or subtle and was earning far less than he was worth in a league where it was taken for granted that the white stars would earn more. His success in Detroit saw him win a move to Sparta, a club playing in Chicago who, as their name suggests, had roots in the Czech community.

It was while in Chicago he met and married a young woman called Bobbie Scott and they had a son who was to gain fame in his own field later in life. Gil Scott Heron heard the stories of his father’s footballing prowess and said in his biography...

“His skills would offend the opposition, often leaving them feeling foolish and flailing, victims of Gil’s fancy footwork. There were scoundrels in places like Skokie, a suburb of Chicago then inhabited primarily by Europeans, who treated soccer like an ethnic heirloom. My mother talked about incidents when opposing players had felt forced to foul him, going for his legs instead of the ball, not trying to tackle him but to injure; these were red flags to his temper.”

That temper saw Gil Heron sent off more than once as he retaliated for the rough treatment he was often receiving. It was while Gil was playing in Chicago that Celtic arrived in America for a tour. Bob Kelly the Celtic Chairman of the time was always on the lookout for new talent and word reached him of a powerful forward with an eye for goal was by then playing with Detroit Corinthians. Gil’s colour was never an issue for Celtic who offered him the chance to come to Scotland for a trial. Kelly said at the time…

'We never saw him play but the word about him was so good that I invited him over for a test. He satisfied and thus was signed.'

Gil’s decision to head for Scotland had powerful ramifications in his personal life. Bobbie and Gil Junior stayed in America and his move virtually ended their relationship. He would be moving to a league where there were no other black players playing and one American newspaper thought his move to Celtic was akin to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing of Jackie Robinson a few years earlier. Robinson was the first black player in the major baseball leagues of the USA and caused quite a stir. When some of his team mates grumbled about playing alongside an African American, Dodgers’ Manager, Leo Durocher, to his eternal credit said …

"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."

As Gil was to find at Celtic Park there were no colour barriers, no racial slurs, and no contemptuous team mates. He excelled in the trial game scoring twice and earning a year-long contract. Of course Celtic signed Heron for footballing reasons, they wanted to see if the player could score as prolifically in Scotland as he has in the USA, but it was more than that. Gil was a pioneer who in the monochrome world of 1950s Britain was blazing a trail that others would follow. There had been a few other coloured players who had played in senior British football but in an age when Britain was still a very stuffy, conservative place, Heron’s arrival caused quite a stir. Even Scottish Newspapers used language which some would find offensive in the modern age but in less enlightened times passed without comment. One spoke of Celtic reaping a ‘black bonanza’ with Heron in the side.

Gil Heron scored on his debut for Celtic against Morton in the League Cup in front of 40,000 delighted fans who soon dubbed him the ‘Black Arrow.’ He followed that up with a tremendous goal against Airdrie which was described in the press in the following manner…

‘’Heron took a pass from Baillie about midfield and side-stepping Dingwall on his run through released a tremendous shot from 25 yards which beat Fraser all ends up. The crowd applauded an effort which was as fine as has been seen on the ground for many a day.”

However that early promise faded as the physical and climatic demands of Scottish football took their toll on him. He scored a lot of goals in the reserve side while he waited for a recall to the first team but while doing so reacted to a rash tackle and got involved in a fist fight with an opponent and that autocratic disciplinarian Bob Kelly would have none of that. Gil would see out his year’s contract but it wouldn’t be renewed. That being said Gil loved his time at Celtic Park and found friendship among the players who enjoyed his company. He wrote of those days…

‘’There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest football country in the world. For as small a country as it is it produces more good footballers than any place on earth. My days at Parkhead have been wonderful and there are no greater a bunch of boys than those at the Paradise. I as a complete stranger was made at home the moment I arrived and the Manager, Mr McGrory, has been very understanding. The greatest ambition of my life was realised when I donned the green and white jersey.’

Gil socialised with players like Charlie Tully who recalled the Jamaican’s colourful attire, most notably his ‘Zoot suit, trilby hat and a pair of yellow shoes.’ 

The Jamaican’s legacy at Celtic far outweighs his contribution on the field. He played just 5 first team games for Celtic but in doing so demonstrated that barriers were there to be kicked down. Celtic have always had an open door policy and players of all ethnicities and faiths have been welcome at Paradise however other clubs were not as enlightened in those times as was society in general.

The times Gil Heron lived in could be harsh and unforgiving to men of colour but he made a life for himself. He would admit that he made choices which were hard on his ex-wife Bobbie and his son Gil Scott-Heron which led to him seeing little of him until him was in his twenties. He eventually moved back to the USA and married his Scottish sweetheart once his divorce from Bobbie was settled. Inter-racial marriages were still illegal in half of the states of American then but not in Michigan where he settled.  He worked in the Ford Motor plant in Detroit and refereed football matches, was a keen photographer and even found time to write poetry. One his poems remembered his year at Celtic and reflected on the fine players in the game then…

The Great Ones
I'll remember all the great ones
Those that I have seen,
Those who I have played with
Who wore the white and green.

There was Tully and Bobby Evans
No greater ones you'd see,
And Celtic Park was our haven
To win was our destiny.

There was Sammy Cox and Thornton
Woodburn was there too,
Waddell and the great George Young
Who wore the white and blue. 

There was Reilly and Turnbull for the Hibs
Billy Steele the great Dundee,
I'll remember all the great ones
Wherever I may be.

So let there be a Hall of Fame
The fans will all be there,
The stars will all be remembered
By loved ones everywhere.

His son became a noted musician who’s album ‘The revolution will not be televised’ was critically acclaimed. Gil Scott Heron once said of his father’s time at Celtic that the Scots loved two things, music and football and it pleased him that the Heron family gave then a musician and a footballer to enjoy. He father followed Celtic’s fortunes all of his life and remembered fondly his time in the place he called ‘The Paradise.’

That fine Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra was inspired by Gil Heron’s story and wrote a song for him called ‘Flight of the Heron.’ As luck would have it Scottish writer, Gerry Hassan, visited an ageing Gil in the USA and took the single along for him to hear. The old man was moved to tears that far across the sea in Scotland they still remembered him and still celebrated him. He promised he would record the song himself but time and age meant that this was not to be. Gil Heron, footballer, poet, photographer and in some ways pioneer died in November 2008.

Men like him opened doors for others to follow and he was living proof that Celtic continued to live up to their founding philosophy, summed up in Maley’s famous adage; ‘It is not his creed or nationality which counts but the man himself.’  I’ll leave the last words of this article to the remarkable Gil Heron himself who said in one of his poems…

‘Beat the banners of the green
The finest team I’ve ever seen
Keep the cup and never yield
Race them, chase them off the field’

Gil Heron (1922-2008)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Walking on air

Walking on air

The passing of Derry man Martin McGuinness this week had me thinking of the last time I visited the north of Ireland. It was two or three years ago and while I was there I took a trip on the Tour bus which travels around the fine city of Belfast. Not that I was into what some call ‘conflict tourism,’ rather it seemed an easy way to see the city. It was interesting to see for the first time so many of the streets and areas which made the news reports so often when I was growing up. The peace wall dividing part of the city is an echo of those times and a reminder that tensions can still be raised at times. On that sunny morning I had the surreal experience of sitting on the top deck of the bus as it wound its way around streets where ordinary folk were living ordinary lives. A man walking his dog glanced up at the tour bus in time to be photographed by some Chinese tourists. Another chap cutting his grass barely seemed to notice the bus edging along the road by his house.

From the ordinary streets of the city the bus then moved on to the Parliament building at Stormont, surely the grandest ever Parliament constructed for such a small province? The statue of a Dublin Lawyer, Edward Carson, stands in defiant pose. This was the man, above all others, who guided the Unionists down the path of partition and in that sense he remains a figure of distaste to many Republican Irishmen who saw the division of their country as an unforgivable crime. He was not without some sensibilities though and warned the new Northern Ireland province in 1920s not to treat the Catholic minority marooned in the six counties poorly…

"We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.’’

Any unbiased history shows clearly that the new Northern Ireland state failed to listen to him and discrimination, biased policing and denial of basic civil rights, such as one man one vote, was denied to the minority Catholic population.

The excellent tour guide on the bus was clearly well schooled in the art of sounding totally neutral as he narrated this journey around the city’s main historical features. From the impressive City Hall to the much bombed Europa Hotel; from the new Titanic Quarter and the old Harland and Wolff shipyard, he gave us some fascinating, if carefully scripted, information. He smiled as he told the tourists on the bus that the ‘H & W’ signs painted onto the huge cranes in Harland and Wolff’s meant, ‘Hello and Welcome.’ Having read Andrew Boyd’s book ‘Holy War in Belfast’ it seems clear that the shipyard was not always a welcoming place for members of the minority community in the province.

It’s hard to travel around Belfast and not notice the murals or memorials to the various incidents which signpost the conflict. One such place is the area around St Matthew’s church in Short Strand. It was here in that hot summer of 1970 that local people acted to protect their area against what they saw as a loyalist incursion. They knew well what had occurred the previous summer when Catholic streets were burned to the ground as the Police did nothing. The ensuing gun battle around St Matthew’s lasted all night and left 3 dead and 28 wounded but the pogrom was avoided.  Loyalists, of course, have their own version of events but what cannot be denied is that such occurrences marked the continuing spiral of violence which was to tear that society apart for the best part of 30 years.  God alone knows how ordinary folk managed to bring up their children and do their best for their families in the midst of the chaos around them.  I don’t make judgements about the hard choices people had to make then. When the state fails in its duty to protect citizens, who can blame people for protecting their families and homes themselves?

The tabloids here in the UK have not been kind to Martin McGuinness and as usual portray Britain’s role in Ireland as some sort of peace mission keeping the two tribes of waring Paddies apart. The truth is more prosaic as anyone who studies the conflict will soon discover. None of the armed factions came out of it with their honour intact. Not the paramilitaries, not the politicians and certainly not the security apparatus of the British state which demonstrated that old ruthlessness which Indians, Boers, Kenyans and many others have long known about.

The unity of any people is first conceived in their minds. There is a case for arguing that the violence of the troubles made Irish unity a more distant prospect. The peace process was in many ways remarkable, seemingly implacable enemies worked together and McGuinness and Ian Paisley seemed to strike up a genuine friendship. Paisley seemed to mellow greatly after his near death experience in the early 1990s and talked of wanting to be remembered as a peacemaker. McGuinness never gave up his aim of reunifying his country but accepted that the armed struggle was over. The vast majority in the province will surely be happy that it is?

At the demographics show that Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority in a generation, there needs to be a coming together of people. There is a need to escape the ‘winners and losers’ mentality of the past and try to forge a future where everyone has a respected place. None of this is easy but even on some of the darkest of the troubles there were shafts of light cutting through the darkness. I recall in the aftermath of the Remembrance Day explosion in Enniskillen the astonishing courage of Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter that day. He said of her as they lay in the rubble…

‘She held my hand tightly, gripped me as hard as she could. She said ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me and those were the last words I ever heard her say. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.’

The hope for all conflicts is that good people can forgive and look forward instead of back all of the time. Most people know well the faults and failings of the past but there needs to be more focus on the sort of society we can create in the future. Bill Clinton said of Martin McGuinness today…

‘’After growing up at a time of rage and resentment, he decided to fight discrimination by whatever means available to the passionate young, including violence. He realised that you could have an Ireland that was free, independent and self-governing and still inclusive. That the dreams of little children were no more or no less legitimate just because of their faith background or their family's history or the sins of their parents."

Clinton spoke of the need to honour McGuinness by finishing his work and quoted Seamus Heaney who received the Nobel Prize for literature. Clinton said…

‘Heaney said that the secret of his success was deciding to walk on air against his better judgement. Believe me when the people who made this peace did it every single one of them decided to take a flying leap into the unknown against their better judgement.’’

As projections show that Catholics will be in a majority in Northern Ireland within 20 years, there will be challenges ahead should that translate into majority support for reunification. That is by no means certain but at the end of the day people need to live together for true unity is surely far more than the absence of borders just as peace is more than the absence of war.

I’m hopeful that the land of my forebears will reach an accommodation in future in which all are equally respected and valued. Whatever they decide, I hope it is without the rancour and violence of the past.

It has been a long and painful road for Ireland but there is always hope and there are always good people working away for a better future.

Saturday, 18 March 2017



A player knows when he’s hurt and Henrik Larsson knew something was very wrong as he lay on the emerald turf of the Parc Olympique Lyonaise that misty October night in 1999. Dutch referee Rene Temmink was on the spot very quickly and Larsson, who played in Holland with Feyenoord, said to him in Dutch, ‘I think I’ve broken my leg.’ As he lay on the grass, the sickening realisation that his season may well be over didn’t stop the Swede calculating how many months it would be to the following summer’s European Championships and whether he would be able to recover in time to play in them. His positivity and professionalism were never in doubt but as Celtic supporters in the stadium and at home watched Larsson being stretchered off, the big question of how John Barnes’ side would manage without him troubled many. The team had gone 17 games without loss before that tie in Lyon. After it they lost 4 of the next 6 matches.

Barnes tenure struggled on and the Scottish weather had a say in his final demise as Celtic Manager. A storm had loosened a piece of guttering on one of the Celtic Park stands leading to a cup tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle being postponed until early February 2000. The midweek tie produced perhaps one of the poorest results in Celtic’s history. The team looked lost as the lower league visitors deservedly won 3-1. Eric Black, Barnes assistant, tried to rouse them at half time but his tongue lashing led to a violent altercation with Mark Viduka who then refused to play in the second half. It was a shambles and symptomatic that Barnes early promise as Celtic Manager was melting away.

Larsson was months from returning to fitness as the side stuttered along. A League cup win against an Aberdeen side which Celtic had hammered 5-0, 7-0, 5-1 and 6-0 in their four SPL encounters that season, couldn’t disguise the fact that Celtic were a good way behind Rangers Indeed they finished the season 21 points behind the Ibrox side who had spent big and in retrospect spent recklessly to build their side. Change was coming though and in came in the form of a confident, well-spoken Irishman called Martin O’Neil. That warm summer of 2000 was one of huge hope and expectation for Celtic supporters. Rangers had won 11 league titles in the previous 12 seasons and Celtic’s 1998 title win had stopped the ‘Ten’ but wasn’t the springboard to further success the fans had hoped for.

A fit again Larsson lined up with debut boys Chris Sutton and Joos Valgaeren at Tannadice in July 2000 as the Celtic support watched with keen anticipation. Both strikers scored and it was obvious that the Larsson-Sutton partnership would be a potent one. Dick Advocaat’s Rangers was again spending big to try to continue their domination of Scottish football and Torre Andre Flo would arrive for the astonishing sum of £12m. Celtic were spending in a more measured way and O’Neil made sure the players he brought in were up to the rigours of Scottish football. His side was fast, skillful and potent up front but there was now a physicality too. The first real test would come on a hot August day when they met Advocaat’s side at Celtic Park. Sutton had spoken of the need to ‘put Rangers in their place’ and it took him around 60 seconds to begin that process. In 12 incredible minutes Celtic ripped Rangers apart and were 3-0 ahead. It could have been more but for the heroics of Klos in goal.

The moment most Celtic fans remember about that game came in the second half. Sutton fed Larsson with the ball and the Swede nutmegged the hapless Bert Konterman and raced towards Klos as the Celtic support held its breath. What followed was one of those beautiful moments which football produces now and then. Larsson saw the keeper advance towards him an in an instant clipped the ball exquisitely over his head. It arced over the German goalkeeper in the bright August sunshine and nestled in the net.  It was a goal of poetic beauty as well as a signal to those watching of the resurgent confidence and audacity of Larsson and O’Neil’s Celtic. The King was back and so was Celtic. There were exciting times ahead. Larsson said of that goal…

‘That was special for me because of the nutmeg on Bert Konterman first. Then Stefan Klos was coming out of his goal, but the ball was going in as soon as it left my right boot. People still talk about that goal a lot!’


Larsson went on to score 53 goals that season and win the Golden Boot as Europe’s top striker. His achievement is all the more remarkable because the goals scored in the so called ‘big leagues’ of Europe were awarded 1.5 points compared to just 1 point per goal scored in Scotland. It is not being disrespectful to that fine penalty box striker, Ally McCoist to point out that his two golden shoes were awarded when every league in Europe was judged the same with one point for one goal awarded. Goals though were only part of what Larsson brought to Celtic. His all-round team play was excellent and he became something of a talisman. When he played the fans knew they had a chance against any opposition.
The years which followed saw Celtic dominate Scottish football and Larsson cement his reputation as one of the best strikers in Europe. He moved on eventually to Barcelona where he turned the Champions League Final on its head to earn the Catalans a famous victory against Arsenal in Paris. Thierry Henry said after that game…

"People always talk about Ronaldinho, and everything but I didn't see him today - I saw Henrik Larsson. Two times he came on - he changed the game, that is what killed the game - sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto'o and people like that, you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference and that was Henrik Larsson tonight. "

His team mate at Barcelona, the brilliant Ronaldinho, came to call him ‘Idolo’ (my idol) recognising Larsson’s contribution and professionalism on and off the pitch. For Celtic fans, watching him raise the European Cup above his head gave immense satisfaction. Here was a fitting reward and recognition for a fine player who had graced the Hoops for seven wonderful years. It is perhaps tinged with regret that the loss against Porto in Seville stopped him sharing such a moment with them. His 242 goals in 315 games for Celtic marks him as one of the most prolific scorers in the club’s history with only the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox ahead of him.

I’ve seen many fine players play for Celtic in my many years following the club. Very few match Henrik Larsson in terms of attitude, ability and professionalism. We fans came to love him and I like to think he came to love Celtic as we do. For many he was their ‘Idolo’ and few players deserved that accolade as much as Henrik Larsson.

Thanks for all you did for Celtic. We who saw you play will always remember the times we shared.

You made us happy when skies were grey.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Birth of a Legend

Birth of a Legend

A crowd of several hundred had gathered at the end of Cumberland Street on a grey Scottish morning to watch the coaches pull away. It was one of those spontaneous street gatherings which occurred now and then in the Gorbals. Such gatherings happened at weddings when the ‘scramble’ brought scores of local kids out to see if they could get a few coins when the groom threw the traditional handful of money from the wedding car. They happened when funerals were taking place of well-known characters from the area. They happened on a grand scale when Celtic won a major honour. Indeed thousands were on the streets just two years earlier when they beat Dunfermline to win the Scottish Cup. Today they had gathered to see off a couple of coach loads of locals who were travelling over 1700 miles to Lisbon in Portugal to watch Celtic in the European Cup final. All over Glasgow and indeed Scotland, such farewells were taking place as thousands left for Portugal to see if a dream could become reality.

As the coaches pulled away from the kerb a cheer went up and those on the pavement waved at their brothers, fathers, uncles, friends. From the windows of the tenements which overlooked the scene, flags and green scarves hung and scores of bleary eyed faces watch the buses leave. Those inside the buses banged the windows and sang. Most were drinking despite the earliness of the hour. The song being sung on one of the coaches was picked up by many on the kerb who joined in and the street soon echoed to and old song about days long gone…

‘I’ll leave aside my pick and spade; I’ll aside behind my plough
And I’ll leave aside my old grey mare, no more I’ll need them now
And I’ll leave behind my Mary; she’s the girl I do adore
And I wonder if she’ll think of me when she hears the cannon roar’

As the buses turned the corner and were lost to sight the crowd drifted for home. ‘Wish I was goin’ wi them,’ said Phil McAllister to his good friend Tam Murray. ‘I know whit ye mean, Phil but I think Angie needs ye here this week.’ Phil nodded, his wife was due their first child any day and it would have been selfish to travel to Portugal and leave her to it. Besides, money was tight and having a wee one cost. He couldn’t afford the time off work and had to accept that Celtic’s date with destiny would take place with him watching it on TV. The two friends chatted until Phil reached his close at Crown Street, ‘Mind it’s an early kick aff on Thursday so get yer arse tae my hoose early for a swally,’ Tam smiled, ‘I’m sure she can keep that wean inside for a couple of hours on Thursday.’ Phil grinned, ‘Listen mate, knowing my luck she’ll go intae labour as the teams come oot.’ They parted with an easy smile, the sort good friends share and Phil climbed the stairs to his top floor flat.

Phil sat on the bed beside Angie and stroked her tousled hair, ‘Is that yer Da away?’ she asked quietly. ‘Aye, hen, two days on a bus won’t be much fun but he wouldn’t miss it for the world.’ As the radio quietly played ‘Silence is golden’ in the background, she propped herself up on one elbow, ‘I know you wanted tae go Phil but I need you here. This whole birth thing scares me a bit.’ He held her close, ‘You’ll be fine darling and I’d rather be wi you and that’s the truth.’ He lay on the bed beside her, ‘Some things are more important than fitbaw.’ She smiled, ‘Who are you kidding? You’d be in Lisbon like a shot if I said it was OK!’ He laughed and lay beside her, his nose touching hers, ‘For once yer wrong, I know my place is here wi you so no more of yer nonsense.'

Thursday May 25th 1967 dawned bright and sunny in Glasgow and there was an air of expectancy hanging over the city. It was as if the whole town was holding its breath. Some schools were closing early to allow children to get home in time to see the big game and many workers had pestered bosses for weeks to let then be in the pub or home in time to see the Celts face their fate in Lisbon. At 2 o’clock that afternoon Phil was preparing to head to Tam’s house to watch the game. ’If ye go intae labour get Mrs McIntyre tae phone Tam’s next door neighbours, they’ll let me know and I’ll sprint back here in 5 minutes.’ Such complicated arrangements were common as most Gorbals folk had yet to have a phone installed. ‘I’ll be fine,’ she smiled, ‘not a twinge yet, besides my Ma’s coming around at three. Just enjoy the game and stay sober!’ Phil left her with a hug, which was challenging given the huge baby bump she now had. He was feeling exhilarated by the thought of becoming a dad but equally this match in Lisbon filled his mind. Celtic had a chance in a lifetime to become legends. He skipped down the stair singing quietly to himself, ‘For we only know that there’s gonnae be a show and the Glasgow Celtic will be there!’ He exited the close and was no more than 10 paces into his journey when he heard his wife’s unmistakable voice from the top floor window, ‘Phil!’ He looked up and the expression on her face told him all he needed to know. It was time.

Phil McAllister had no idea of how Celtic were getting on beneath the Lisbon sun as he waited in an ante-room at Rottenrow Maternity hospital on that May afternoon. Long hours hobbled past like old soldiers as he waited on news of his wife. At last as the clock neared 6.15 he was called into the small room where his wife lay looking in equal parts exhausted and delighted. She cradled in her arms a small bundle of life and managed a weak smile towards Phil. ‘Come and meet you son,’ she said quietly. Phil sat on the bed beside her feeling his emotions welling up. He held the tiny child in his arms for the first time and looked at his sleeping face. ‘He’s beautiful, Angie, just beautiful.’

As Phil held his son for the first time that spring evening, 1700 miles away Billy McNeil was holding the European Cup above his head. It glinted and shone in the bright Portuguese sunshine and heralded the birth of a legend.

Phil would hear all the stories of that glorious day in the weeks and months ahead but for now he was content to watch his wife quietly drift into much needed sleep as he held his son. He would in time honour the scorers of those goals in Lisbon by christening his son ‘Thomas Stephen’ but that was all in the future. For now he was content to bask in the little miracle he held in his arms. 

It had been quite a day.

Friday, 3 March 2017


As I stopped by the Statue of Brother Walfrid on a chilly Friday evening to look at the tributes left in memory of Tommy Gemmell, a grizzled old chap beside me mumbled, ‘Another one of the old brigade away eh?’ He introduced himself as John and told me he was the Janitor at one of Glasgow’s more famous colleges. We got talking about Tommy Gemmell and our memories of him. I told him my childhood memories of the galloping full back with the ferocious shot who carried real threat into the opposition’s half in every game he played. He in turn told me the following story which he delivered in a gravelly Glaswegian voice as warm as it was genuine.

John told me that he attended London Road Primary School more than 50 years ago. The school as you know was demolished as the Celtic Way was created a couple of years back. He lived in the tenements which once stood on the London Road opposite Celtic Park. As a lad he and his pals often saw Celtic players returning from training. In those days Celtic changed in the stadium and walked half a mile to Barrowfield training pitch which stood behind the current Celtic Social club building. It seems astonishing to modern ears that some of the best players in Europe got to training in such a manner but that was the way it was then. One day John and his buddies decided to hurl abuse through the school railings at the Celtic players like Gemmell, Johnstone and Chalmers who were walking back to Celtic Park muddy but laughing and joking. John recalled the sectarian nature of the abuse he joined in that day long ago as a boy and wasn’t proud of it.

Later that day as he and his fellow pupils sat in class, the door opened and the head teacher walked in closely followed by the unmistakable figure of Jock Stein and Celtic full back Tommy Gemmell.  Jock addressed the class and told them about the abuse the players had heard that morning. He told them that some of the Celtic players had reported it to him and he had phoned the school to arrange the visit. John still recalls clearly what Stein said to the class all those years ago. ‘To shout things like ‘Fenian B’ or ‘Pape’ at the players is just plain stupid. Celtic are a mixed side and players like Gemmell, Simpson, Wallace and Auld were not Catholics. Indeed I myself am not a Catholic.’  John recalls Gemmell too telling them how silly their behaviour had been and admits to being a little ashamed when confronted in the manner he and his pals had been by Jock Stein.

Of course they were all just silly school kids having a lark but if such things are checked early enough it can help youngsters avoid developing more deep rooted prejudices later in life. John told me that he came from a Rangers supporting family but drifted towards Celtic as he grew and he put much of it down to that chat from Stein and Gemmell. As a teenager he became a committed Celt and has now backed the team for over 45 years. He was genuinely sad at the loss of a man like Tommy Gemmell. ‘Those guys played it like it should be played. I loved Celtic because of the football they played, it was a joy to watch.’ John said to me before saying his farewells and trudging down the Celtic way with just the hint of a glance at the spot where his old school had stood.

A year after that classroom intervention by Jock Stein and Tommy Gemmell Celtic were champions of Europe; helped in no small way by Gemmell’s attacking prowess and howitzer like shot. It was recognised in the Guardian Newspaper the day after Celtic defeated Inter that Tommy Gemmell had played a vital role…

"Stein had correctly said the day before the final; Inter will play it defensively. That's their way and it's their business. But we feel we have a duty to play the game our way, and our way is to attack. Win or lose, we want to make the game worth remembering. Just to be involved in an occasion like this is a tremendous honour and we think it puts an obligation on us. We can be as hard and professional as anybody, but I mean it when I say that we don't just want to win this cup. We want to win it playing good football, to make neutrals glad we've done it, glad to remember how we did it."

The effects of such thinking, and of Stein's genius for giving it practical expression, were there for all the football world to see on Thursday. Of course, he has wonderful players, a team without a serious weakness and with tremendous strengths in vital positions. But when one had eulogised the exhilarating speed and the bewildering variety of skills that destroyed Inter – the unshakable assurance of Clark, the murderously swift overlapping of the full-backs, the creative energy of Auld in midfield, the endlessly astonishing virtuosity of Johnstone, the intelligent and ceaseless running of Chalmers – even with all this, ultimately the element that impressed most profoundly was the massive heart of this Celtic side.

Nothing symbolised it more vividly than the incredible display of Gemmell. He was almost on his knees with fatigue before scoring that minute but somehow his courage forced him to go on dredging up the strength to continue with the exhausting runs along the left wing that did more than any other single factor to demoralise Inter. Gemmell has the same aggressive pride, the same contempt for any thought of defeat, that emanates from Auld.

Before the game Auld cut short a discussion about the possible ill-effects of the heat and the firm ground with a blunt declaration that they would lick the Italians in any conditions.’ When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead: "Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’’

It is tempting to say that the splendid football of the Lisbon Lions was eloquently matched by some of the splendid reporting of the game. Through the mists of time or via the wonderful medium of modern technology we can see and hear again the sights and sounds of that day long ago when Celtic proved they were the finest side in Europe. Tommy Gemmell, the man French Magazine, L’Equipe called the ‘Executioner of Inter, the man who smashed their defensive screen’ looms large in that game. His ceaseless hounding of the Inter defence, his strong, probing runs and of course his thunderous shot, all helped change Celtic’s history forever.

In the old footage from Lisbon you can hear the clipped BBC English of Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme. As Celtic pounded away at the Inter defence some may have worried that the equalising goal might never come. Then in that glorious moment Wolstenholme spoke the words all Celtic fans longed to hear….

‘Now Clark to Murdoch…. In comes Craig… Gemmell… He’s scored! A great goal! He’s done it!’

They knew then they would win and God bless every one of them.

We won’t forget you Tommy or your team mates from those golden days. What times we had; what memories you helped create. What pride we have in your achievements.

Rest in peace and thank you.