Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game

The rise of the internet and social media has been generally a positive feature of modern life. Those old pub arguments about who scored a certain goal or whether a player was offside or not are now solved with the flick of a button and a glance through YouTube or Twitter. Another positive of the internet age is that the once all powerful press is now regularly ridiculed online and held to account in a manner unthinkable in pre-internet days. For instance, the contradictions and downright absurdities they tried to sell the footballing public over the liquidation of old Rangers were ruthlessly torn apart as the nonsense they were by an increasingly clued up and articulate online community.

It’s refreshing and somewhat democratising to see the old media being challenged by the new. In a world of news manipulation, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post truth’ it’s easy to be sceptical about what we see and read but now and then there is still good old fashioned reporting which reminds us that decent journalists are still around. Of course there can be a tendency to praise those who see things the way we do and if social media has one great failing it is that communities of like-minded individuals follow each other into an echo chamber of seamless conformity. Within the bubble of orthodoxy it takes a brave person to stand up to the herd mentality and espouse contrary views. It is however necessary to good open debate that we hear other views and can disagree without rancour and abuse.

It’s interesting to see how Rangers supporters view Journalist Graham Spiers after his many statements on bigotry and racism among a support he was once part of. Some quietly agreed with much of what he says even if they thought he banged on about it a bit much. For others of limited intellect though, Spiers was a traitor who had turned on his own. Statements such as these cut them to the bone:

‘I have always happily ignored one of the traditional and cowardly rules of Scottish sports journalism - the rule which says, always apportion equal blame to Celtic and Rangers when talking of bigotry - by pointing a much bigger finger of blame at Rangers, the club I grew up supporting.’

In 2011 after the League Cup final between Celtic and Rangers, Spiers pointed out a feature of the game the vast majority of the watching press pack chose to ignore…

‘The incessant bigoted chanting by Rangers fans at Hampden was shocking. They are unarguably the most socially-backward fans in British football. The really damaging thing for RFC is, it’s not the mythical ‘small minority’. There appear to be thousands upon thousands singing these songs.’

Those of you who understand the pernicious sub-culture which sadly still lurks in the shadows of Scottish society will understand that it takes courage to speak out in such terms. We saw for instance the campaign of abuse aimed at Journalist, Jim Spence, for expressing the perfectly reasonable opinion that the resurrected Rangers of 2012 was a new club. Some lobbied to have him sacked from his job while a few aimed venomous and cowardly abuse at him from the anonymity of the internet.

In days past we produced some excellent sports writers in Scotland who wrote eloquently on the issues of the day without fear or favour. Some, such as Ian Archer took the bull by the horns and spoke about issues others for whatever reason ignored. Following a riot by Rangers fans in Birmingham in 1976 he called out bigotry in a manner few of his contemporaries would have contemplated…

"This has to be said about Rangers, as a Scottish Football club they are a permanent embarrassment and an occasional disgrace. This country would be a better place if Rangers did not exist."

This is not to say that Celtic are free from anti-social elements among their support for all big clubs have their share of less cerebral followers but the issues swirling around Rangers are on a much larger scale and have not been helped by being ignored by large parts the media for a century or more. Perhaps Scottish society wasn’t ready to confront the elephant in the room. Every attempt to address bigotry became mired in pointless obfuscation about the role of Catholic schools or the ‘Old Firm’ problem when in reality there is no excuse for teaching a child to hate or allowing impressionable young minds to be polluted by a ‘culture’ of division and prejudice.

Most right thinking people wish it wasn’t so but our society still has work to do to ensure our sports reporters can attend sporting events and write freely about the passion, drama and action on the field. When greats like Hugh McIlvanney are unleashed they write with an eloquence and a poetic beauty that anyone would recognise. In the bowels of the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon in 1967 he described the following scene…

‘’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.’’

Great writers take you there, make you feel the same emotions and passions they did as they watched the scene before them unfold. Whether writing about boxing or football, McIlvanney was the master of prose which not only informed the reader but stirred the imagination. This paragraph on the wonderful Real Madrid side’s victory in the European Cup final at Hampden in 1960 is typical of the man…

“Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”

He was a writer who described George Best as having ‘feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands’ and on one wild windy day’s reporting at Ayr races he wrote; “It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.” Such turn of phrase is uncommon in this age and more’s the pity. One of Hugh McIlvanney’s greatest pieces was written in the aftermath of the death of Jimmy Johnstone. It carried such affection and poignancy and began…

‘Solemnity was always handed its coat early in Jimmy Johnstone’s company and something as ordinary as death had no chance of altering that. What else but laughter could be the predominant sound when the wee man was buried in his native Lanarkshire on Friday? The shadow cast by the horrors of diminishment that punctuated his improbably long struggle against the implacable ravages of motor neurone disease, and by knowing he was only 61 when his resistance was finally exhausted, was a darkness bound to yield to a thousand memories of somebody driven — sometimes destructively, often hilariously — by an instinctive conviction that life was meant to be lively.’

He went on to speak of Jimmy’s many escapades and the brushes with Jock Stein but never failed to recognise the genius of a wonderful football player who was, despite his very human flaws, a master of his chosen profession…

All of which guarantees that Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’

McIlvanney’s great gift was of course his identification with the ordinary fans who invested such emotion, even love into their club. As a working class lad from a mining background in Ayrshire, he understood what football meant to ordinary people. He would take short incidents or scenes he had witnessed at sporting events and build a very human story around it. This, again from Lisbon in 1967, is typical of the man…

‘It was hard work appearing so relaxed and the effort eventually took its toll on Stein when he made a dive for the dressing rooms a minute before the end of the game, unable to stand any more. When we reached him there, he kept muttering: "What a performance. What a performance." It was left to Bill Shankly, the Scottish manager of Liverpool- and the only English club manager present- to supply the summing-up quote. "John," Shankly said with the solemnity of a man to whom football is a religion, "you're immortal." An elderly Portuguese official cornered Stein and delivered ecstatic praise of Celtic's adventurous approach. "This attacking play, this is the real meaning of football. This is the true game." Stein slapped him on the shoulder. "Go on, I could listen to you all night." Then, turning to the rest of us, "Fancy anybody saying that about a Scottish team."

Those of us who love football and recognise in it all the triumphs and disasters, heroes and villains we see in life itself, will always find time to listed to or read the words of those who share our passion. Writers like Hugh McIlvanney are rare but there are some fine scribes out there. I just wish more of them were given the freedom to write in the manner they want to and that editors had the integrity to trust them and back them up when they take on the difficult issues surrounding our game. In an age when clubs have PR departments trying to control the news agenda, we need a few mavericks asking hard questions and we need a few artists painting pictures with words.

I’ll leave you with the words of McIlvanney who described watching Jimmy Johnstone play in the following manner….

‘That last characteristic gave an extra dimension to the impact of watching him play for Celtic and Scotland. It went beyond excitement or aesthetics or entertainment. When he was at his best, the performance was so extravagant and idiosyncratic, so full of wildly imaginative impertinences and a small (5ft 4in) man’s defiance of the odds that it touched us profoundly but lightly, as sport should. The natural reaction was not to gasp in awe, which would have been in order, but to smile or even to laugh out loud.’

The old game is still capable of being beautiful. Our sports writers should aspire to writing prose of equal worth and not simply regurgitate press releases from those out to control the message.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

A matter of respect

A matter of respect

Fans of Scottish football have had to live with arrogance and condescension from many of our southern neighbours since the very beginning of organised football in these islands. Never mind that fact that the Scots invented the passing game which we see today. Indeed the first 16 matches between Scotland and England saw the Scots win 10, draw 4 and lose just 2. The plodding English sides then relied on launching the ball and chasing it and were simply passed off the field by the quick thinking Scots. In one sequence of five games Scotland scored 7, 4, 5, 6 & 5 goals against England and the powers that be in English FA finally ditched their primitive methods and adopted the ‘Scotch style’ of play.

In the 120 years since those far off days, Scottish fans have endured patronising insults from people mostly without any idea at all of what goes on in Scottish football. The latest in a long line of detractors of our game have been Joey Barton and Tony Cascarino.  In the case of Barton he has in fairness made the most of limited talents in his career but was, despite some misconceived arrogance about Scottish football, found to be totally hopeless in the SPFL. To watch him being nutmegged by a Hamilton Accies player or totally dominated by Scott Brown as Celtic swept him and his team aside during a 5-1 drubbing, was infinitely satisfying. If you talk the talk, you’d best be able to walk the walk. Alas Joey’s mouth talked a better game than his feet could play.

Cascarino’s outburst on the rather low grade Talk-Sport Radio was interesting in that it was littered with inaccuracies and the sort of casual prejudice you’d think professional ‘pundits’ would avoid.  He said…

“Domestically, they are so far ahead, they’re miles ahead. “But they’ve lost to Astana, who are from Kazakhstan, in the Champions League. They’ve been bashed up 5-0 by PSG. Okay, PSG are capable of beating any team. Been beaten by Bayern Munich home and away this season, also. They’ve drawn with Rosenborg in the European qualifying campaign. So it is clear that they are on a completely different level from everyone domestically but are still not a great side. Just look at the point total last year, you know? It’s just so ridiculous that we can’t give Celtic too much credit. So to justify this great run that they’ve been on, well, who have they actually beat? You know, beating Ross County, beating St Johnstone, when this team is clearly miles ahead of the rest. I think, what was the record before, it was 100 years ago wasn’t it? So we’re talking 100 years ago of this record, it just feels like it means nothing.”

Celtic’s 4-3 defeat to Astana of course followed a 5-0 win at Celtic Park which rounded off a comprehensive 8-3 aggregate win. As for drawing with Rosenborg, the Norwegians have defeated teams such as Real Madrid, PSG and Valencia in Europe. Celtic beat them in the qualifying tie without losing a goal to them. As for Bayern Munich beating Celtic, the hoops gave the Germans a real fight in Glasgow and were unlucky to lose 2-1. Arsenal, on the other hand, lost ten goals to Bayern in 2 matches last season! Celtic’s huge points tally last season was earned the hard way; Juventus had 102 points in Serie A in 2014, is that league rubbish?

You’d also have to ask Cascarino this; if it’s so easy for Celtic in Scotland why did it take 100 years to break the record?

Cascarino’s experience of Scottish football was limited to his disastrous time in Celtic’s struggling team of 1991-92. He arrived with a £1.1m price tag, a lot of money then, and found scoring in Scotland pretty tough. His first goal when it did arrive was down to the unselfishness of Tommy Coyne who squared the ball to him when he could easily have scored himself. Even then Cascarino almost fluffed it, miscuing the ball badly but still it found its way into the net. Two minutes later he punched Craig Levein as Hearts prepared to take a corner and was sent off. Hearts missed the resultant penalty. He did manage to convert a slack back pass at Ibrox but generally his play was pretty poor as 4 goals in 30 appearances suggests. Indeed my main memory of him is clattering into a Policewoman at Airdrie’s old Broomfield stadium with such force that he sadly knocked her out and left her with injuries which ended her police career.

Since those days he admits he hasn’t watched any Scottish football but still feels able to pontificate on the game up here. Neil Lennon let him have both barrels when he read Cascarino’s comments. The former Celtic Boss said…

“It is disrespectful. How much Scottish football does Tony watch?” said Lennon. To go 63 games at any level is remarkable. Celtic are an excellent side and they proved that with a few games in the Champions League. We’re not getting the money the English clubs can get but the Scottish game is improving. It’s getting healthier. You only have to look at the calibre of manager working up here. I find the competition and the quality of the games really refreshing. We don’t need people from down south lecturing us on how the game is up here. There is still that rawness here. There is still that passion. It’s still a working-class sport up here. You don’t have too many prawn sandwich brigades, who kill the soul of the game. I’ve been to a lot of grounds in England where the atmosphere is awful. I’ve seen some absolute rubbish in England. Rubbish. I watch some games in the Championship and the football is eye-bleeding, whereas I have seen some really good games up here.”

Comparing Scottish football to the game in a country with ten times the population is of course pointless. The rise of satellite TV and the billions it gives to the English game has witnessed an influx of foreign players chasing the money. When Celtic played Leeds United in the European Cup in 1970, all 22 players on the field were from the British Isles. When they played Manchester City last season, City had one English player in their side (Sterling) while Celtic had 4 Scots (Gordon, Tierney, Brown & Forrest) with 3 more on the bench. (Griffiths, McGregor & Armstrong) Money buys quality players and offers a big advantage to rich clubs but nonetheless Celtic matched Manchester City in both those games.
Scotland has a similar population to Norway but has historically punched above its weight, Scottish teams have played in 10 European finals and Scotland currently holds the following European crowd records:

  • ·        European Cup: Celtic v Leeds Utd 136,505 (1970)
  • ·        Scottish Cup: Celtic v Aberdeen 146,433 (1937)
  • ·        League Cup : Celtic v Rangers 107,609 (1965)
  • ·        League Match: Rangers v Celtic 118,567 (1939)
  • ·        International: Scotland v England 149,415 (1937)

Today Scottish football is watched by a higher percentage of the population than any major league in Europe. It is often criticised as being uncompetitive but a look around Europe shows that Leagues all over are being dominated by fewer sides. Juventus are currently chasing 7 in a row. Bayern have won the last 5 German titles while Barcelona and Real Madrid have won 14 of the last 17 La Liga titles. Even the much vaunted EPL saw Leicester City become just the fifth side to win the title since 1995.

We’ve all dealt with the ‘my Nan would be top scorer in Scotland’ types on holiday or online. Dig a little deeper and they’re usually clueless about Scottish football. The game here undoubtedly took a dip in the modern era due to bad strategic planning by an amateurish SFA, dreadful stadiums which herded fans in and out like cattle, disgraceful facilities to develop our young players and the sort of changes in society which saw youngsters playing football on computers rather than on the field. It was also damaged by the collapse of Rangers and the bitterness and rancour that produced.

That being said there is much to be optimistic about; stadiums are better, training facilities far superior for players of all ages. Crowds are on the up as the following averages for 2017-18 season show:

  • ·        Celtic: 58,474
  • ·        Rangers: 49,346
  • ·        Hearts: 22,995
  • ·        Hibernian: 17,957
  • ·        Aberdeen: 15,862

Our game is far from perfect but it isn’t the ‘non-league’ standard some commentators in England suggest it is. It has a way to go to recapture the great days of the past but for a nation of 5 million we do OK. I enjoy the rawness and passion of Scottish football, the tribalism and petty rivalries but also the humour and knowledge of the average fan who is far more clued up than the ‘my Nan’ brigade.

At the end of the day it’s best to just smile at the rank arrogance and ignorance of those who have such a pathological downer on Scottish football. Folk who are paid to pontificate on the game like Cascarino are just too lazy to actually come and look at the reality of our game and rely on tired old clichés. His opinion, like his career at Celtic, is best forgotten. 

As the old saying  goes; 'Never allow yourself to be defined by someone else's opinion of you.' 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Beautiful Noise

Beautiful Noise

There was a moment during that pulsating match with Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening just after Callum McGregor scored when I looked around and drank in the sights and sounds of Celtic Park in full flow. From every corner of the stadium noise poured from the stands onto the pitch, it was an amazing assault on the senses. The racket was deafening but it was also in a strange way a beautiful noise. What else in our sanitised lives leads to such an outpouring of emotion, passion and joy?  It’s as if the voice of every Celtic fan at the game merged to become one to roar out our songs of hope and joy. When such incidents occur, it can be a deeply emotional moment. Not only because we find ourselves subsumed into the greater whole that is the wonderful Celtic support but also because we remember in those moments that we’re following generations of Celtic supporters; our fathers, uncles, mothers, grandfathers and in some cases great-grandfathers, who also felt this passion for Celtic. It was after all they who gifted it to us.

Celtic may not have achieved the result their play merited on Tuesday but once again the Celtic supporters proved that they have few equals in European football. Experienced professional like Arjen Robben took time to express his appreciation of the Celtic Park atmosphere as did other Bayern players and officials. You got the impression it wasn’t some patronising line but genuine appreciation of an ambience which is rare even in the raucous world of the Bundesliga. One German Reporter went further and described Celtic Park in the following terms….

‘‘If you want to know what the big bang feels like, you just have to be in Celtic Park when Celtic Glasgow scores.  This stadium is pure magic. The fans in the stands are just amazing. Goosebumps guaranteed. The perfect football atmosphere. Or simply: The best football mood in the world! I was able to watch many great games in Europe and have lots of magical moments: "You'll Never Walk Alone" in Liverpool. 100,000 fans in Barcelona singing the Barca anthem. The crazy fans of Sevilla, who ignite a runner in front of the teams, which makes the whole stadium shake. The whipping fans of Atlético Madrid. The trembling south stand in Dortmund, when the winner against Real came. . But Celtic tops it all! I've never heard a stadium roar louder than McGregor's 1-1 goal. Everyone, really everybody jumped up. Fantastic!  A great orgasm of almost 60,000 Scottish throats. Magic also the 67th minute, when the whole stadium lights up the mobile phone lights and all fans sing the "In the heat of Lisbon" a song for the European Cup Heroes of 1967.’’

Of course we were disappointed to lose a game we could so easily have won but the mood among the Celtic faithful as they trooped out of the stadium after the game was upbeat. There are no ‘good’ defeats but many positives were taken from a game in which Celtic showed that they are capable of competing with one of the top European sides. Gone were the ‘rabbits in the headlights’ we saw when PSG came calling on match day one. Celtic harried and chased Bayern when they had to but also played some beautifully controlled attacking football which at times cut through the Germans’ well marshalled defence. Armstrong missed a glorious chance early on and Dembele almost finished off a beautifully constructed counter attack in that frantic first half.

Of course Celtic paid the price for defensive errors and missing chances but that is what happens when you play in the big boys playground. Rodgers was rightly effusive in his praise of his team but he knows that to stand any chance against the big guns you can’t give them any gifts. So it’s on to Paris in three weeks and realism tells us that we will be facing the outstanding team in Europe in the French capital. PSG have won all their four games so far in the Champions League and have scored 17 goals without conceding a single one. They have won 9 and drawn 2 of their 11 league games, scoring 34 goals in the process. Even at our very best it would be an incredible performance to go there and return with anything. I never watch a Celtic game thinking they will lose but even the most diehard fan will recognise the enormity of the task in Paris.

At the outset our real target in this group was to defeat the higher ranked Anderlecht side and secure European football after Christmas. We have a great chance of doing just that. Should Celtic make it through to the Europa League in the New Year they will find teams of the quality of Villareal, Lazio, AC Milan, Arsenal, Zenit St Petersburg and Lyon lying in wait. Third placed sides from the Champions League will also join them to make the last 32 an exciting prospect and another opportunity to grow and learn in Europe.

These are exciting days to be a Celtic fan and Europe remains the icing on the cake for many supporters. Brendan Rodgers is still just 18 months into his team building exercise and with patience and some judicious purchases, this team can and I think will, improve further. The squad now face five consecutive away games in November before facing a hectic 9 games in 28 days in December. Such a full fixture list is a sign of a successful team and we’d all rather be playing in cup finals and in European ties than sitting at home watching others do on TV. 

By the time Rangers come to Celtic Park on December 30th though we will be clearer about where we stand in both the SPFL and Europe. We must do a professional job in all competitions and ensure we are ready for a challenging and undoubtedly bruising period of games. Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record will be tested but with Rodgers calming influence and steady hand on the tiller we can approach each game with confidence. A new UK record of 63 games will be set tomorrow if Celtic avoid defeat at St Johnstone and that would be a marvellous achievement for the club. It’s an old adage to take ‘one game at a time’ but that’s exactly what Celtic need to do now.

The supporters will follow the side everywhere in big numbers and give them that marvellous backing wherever they play. When Anderlecht arrive at Celtic Park in December they will be met by that wall of noise and a team showing signs of maturing at this level. We all crave and hunger for these big European games under the lights as we back the team through arduous qualifying rounds played in the heat of summer in far off places like Kazakhstan or Israel.  As we show time and time again, the big stage brings out the very best in Celtic’s supporters.

That beautiful noise will soon pour down again from the stands again and give even experienced professionals goosebumps. There’s an old Neil Diamond song which contains the lyric…

‘‘There’s a beautiful noise made of joy and of strife
Like a symphony played by a passing Parade, it’s the music of life
There’s a beautiful noise and it’s a sound that I love
And it makes me feel good like a hand in a glove
Yes it does, yes it does…..What a beautiful noise’’

I’ve been privileged to hear that noise for many years now and I never tire of it. I heard it back in the days when I’d hold man old man’s hand as we marched along the Gallowgate and my boyish excitement when I saw the floodlights of Celtic Park lighting up the east end sky. The new stadium too has had its share of magical moments; watching as we beat Barcelona on a never to be forgotten night in 2012 will live with me forever as will the thrill of watching Nakamura’s free kick flash through the air on that famous night against Manchester United. So many memories of games won and lost, great players and great goals still seared into my mind. All of it shared as I stood shoulder to shoulder with the best fans around.

Following Celtic has been like a lifelong love affair; they thrill you, infuriate you at times but you always come back for more because life would be much the poorer without them.

Saturday, 28 October 2017



Celtic entertain Kilmarnock today and has an opportunity to stretch their unbeaten domestic run to 62 games; a feat which will equal the club record which has stood since 1917.  In that sequence of games, their record was; 49 wins, 13 draws. The run lasted from 13 Nov 1915 until 21 April 1917- a total of 17 months and four days in all before they lost 2-0 to Kilmarnock on the last day of the 1916-17 season. This remarkable run came as World War one raged and fans and players were likely to be called up for service. The SFA abandoned the Scottish cup for the duration of the war but the league was kept going as it was thought to be good for morale. Celtic dominated the league in that period winning 5 titles out of six and losing the other by a single point. It was remarkable achievement by Maley’s side and one to be proud of.

Any cursory search of the web for similar unbeaten runs can be a little confusing as definitions of ‘competitive matches’ become blurred. For instance tournaments like the Glasgow Cup used to pull in big crowds and be considered worth winning. Other nations don’t have a League Cup so should these games be included?  UEFA are the official holders of such records and their website has Celtic fourth in the list of all-time unbeaten records in top flight competitive matches. If we include national FA cup ties as part of the record then the top clubs are as follows…

·        Steaua Bucharest 119 games (1986-89)
·        Lincoln Red Imps 66 games (2009-14)
·        Sheriff Moldova 63 games (2006-08)
·        Celtic (62 games) 1915-17)

Context of course is all; Lincoln Red Imps record came during a period where they won 14 consecutive titles in a land with just 34,000 inhabitants which is less than the town of Falkirk. This makes Celtic’s defeat there in Brendan Rodgers first game all the more embarrassing although the side redeemed themselves by winning the tie overall. Steaua played in a league where fear and corruption were the norm. Communist dictator Ceausescu and his sons,  Valentin and Ilie took great interest in football and influenced games hugely. One report into Romanian football in the years before the fall of communism stated…

‘Interviews with sports writers and officials paint a picture of rigging Romanian soccer matches that make baseball's Black Sox scandal or college basketball point-shaving cases look minor league. They said Romanian soccer fans routinely went to games presuming the winner already was known. Newspapers were told which reporters should cover games. Referees were assumed to be corrupt. Constantin Firanescu, a veteran soccer writer, said players did not have to be paid off because they knew they were not supposed to win against Ceausescu-backed teams, so they entered games fearing reprisals if they won. Steaua and Dinamo routinely took players from other clubs without offering a transfer fee or player trade. Gheorghe Hagi, the star midfielder for Steaua, was taken from first-division rival Sportul Studentesc in 1987.’

Whatever Celtic’s match with Kilmarnock holds today, their remarkable run under Brendan Rodgers will go down in the club’s history as a high point. They reached this milestone playing good football and unlike Steaua had no help along the way. Of course those with no love for Celtic carp about the strength of the league or the absence of a ‘strong Rangers.’ Celtic supporters rightly ignore the detractors and will recall a total lack of calls for a strong Celtic when Rangers were dominating in the 1990s. Some will never praise Celtic no matter what they achieve. The club has since its birth provoked a visceral reaction from some for reasons which have little to do with football. This is nothing new in human history and Celtic fans would recognise the words written by Shakespeare over 400 years ago...

‘He has laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, Why? Because I am a Jew.’

The words spoken by Shylock the Jewish trader in The Merchant of Venice speak of the type of prejudice which has always existed in the hearts of some human beings. 130 years after Celtic’s foundation some still see the club as the outsider, the interloper, rather than recognising them for what they are; the pre-eminent Scottish football club and one of the pillars of the Scottish game.

I never like to predict the outcome of games or get too far ahead of myself but it would be fitting if Celtic could make it to at least 67 games without defeat as a tribute to the Lisbon Lions. Whatever the future holds what this Celtic team has achieved has been remarkable and we should all be proud of them. When it finally comes to an end as it must one day we should applaud them from the field.

Defeat in sport is inevitable at some point but the great sporting heroes and great teams learned from it and became stronger. Through the darkest days of the 1990’s Celtic supporters stuck with them with a remarkable loyalty. I can recall travelling all over Scotland to watch them play in those days of disappointment, defeat and occasional calamity. The supporters developed a camaraderie and a determination to stick with their club and see them rise again. They took the necessary action to pressurise a failing Board to step aside and ultimately saved their club. They backed Fergus McCann’s share issue in the weeks following the painful loss of the League Cup Final to Raith Rovers and put up millions of pounds of their own money. They helped finance and then fill the new stadium when many argued it couldn’t be done. They backed the side to the extent that a club playing in a small league on the periphery of Europe is consistently among the best supported in Europe. All that Celtic achieves on the field of play is built on the foundation of that Celtic community which created and sustains this marvellous football club.

When the history books record the undefeated run of Brendan Rodgers side, they probably won’t record the role the supporters played in it but it was a huge one. Not only in roaring the team on home and away but in sticking with their club through good times and bad and making the tremendous days we are currently enjoying possible.

We should dedicate it to the Lions in this anniversary year, of course, but we should also dedicate it to the ordinary Celtic supporters who were knocked down much in the 90s but always rose again, always believed the good days would return. Fergus McCann once said…

‘The Celtic supporters want to be proud of their club. That’s all they want and it’s what they deserve.’

Players will come and go as will Managers but one thing remains constant and that is the Celtic support. They deserve these good days and I hope they enjoy them for a long time to come.

Friday, 20 October 2017

The white sausage equator

The white sausage equator

Celtic’s tie with Bayern Munich this week got me thinking of another occasion they faced German opposition in Europe. Back in 1992-93 Season Liam Brady’s Celtic was in the middle of one of those barren spells which occur now and then in the club’s history. They had last won a trophy in 1989 when Joe Miller’s goal secured a dramatic cup win and would remain in the doldrums until 1995 when they beat Airdrie to win the cup after six long years in the wilderness.

That summer of 1992 saw Celtic supporters tortured by hope that they could finally put a side together which could match free spending Rangers. Manager Liam Brady had at best a poor record with signings as Cascarino and Gillespie had proved but the arrival of Stuart Slater and a rather jaded Frank McAvennie had the fans at least moderately optimistic for the new season. It was to prove another difficult year. The team finished well behind Rangers and Aberdeen in the league and were knocked out of the cup at Falkirk. Europe saw them paired with a decent, if struggling, Cologne side. A poor showing in Germany had Celtic facing the return leg with a 2-0 deficit to overturn.

Celtic Park was limited to 30,000 for the game as UEFA enforced post Hillsborough limits. Indeed Celtic Park was in need of rebuilding and the direction the club was taking was leading fans to ask serious questions of a board which seemed clueless about how they would finance the required changes or build a team to match cash rich Rangers. Results on the field combined with this seeming ineptitude off it were causing anger among many supporters which would eventually coalesce into open revolt as the fans organised to save their club. All of that was simmering beneath the surface as Cologne arrived in Glasgow with a swagger and confidence which was soon to be tested. Celtic’s supporters like a ‘do or die’ challenge and got right behind the team from the first moment of that game. In return the players roused themselves to give a performance which was surprisingly effective. McStay and Creaney slammed home excellent goals in the first half as the German side lost their composure and when John Collins hit the decisive third ten minutes from time it was all over. The fans sang long and loudly that night not knowing that this was to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise poor season.

I got talking to some rather stunned Cologne fans in a pub after the game and they were sporting enough to congratulate Celtic. It was obvious a 3-0 defeat was not what they had anticipated but they were full of praise for the noisy Celtic support. I kept in touch with a couple of them and invited them back to Glasgow for the Celtic v Rangers game the following spring.

Rangers were coming to Celtic Park on the back of a 44 game unbeaten run and few outside the Hoops support fancied Celtic’s chances. My two German visitors, Axel and Andreas, had a taste of the bars of the Gallowgate that day before the game and loved the singing and passion of the fans. As the songs boomed out they looked around and smiled, ‘This is what football should be about,’ one of them said.

As we headed for Celtic Park along the Gallowgate a mate in a builders van offered us a lift. Along with sundry other Celts, we piled into the back and there among the bags of plaster, planks of wood, old sinks and paint cans we banged the sides of the van as we joined in with the mix tape belting out Celtic songs on the van stereo. Someone offered Axel some of that famous tonic wine beloved of so many in Glasgow and like a good guest in our land he accepted. Then we headed out and joined the green river flowing to the old Celtic end which was literally bouncing as we made our way to a spot behind the goal. I don’t know what my German friends were expecting but the atmosphere and racket just blew them away. It seemed as if the whole Celtic end and Jungle was bouncing on the spot as they sang, ‘Soldiers are we whose lives are pledged to Ireland…..’

The game began amid a cacophony of noise and soon settled into a pattern of Celtic dominance. When John Collins finally scored in 36 minutes Celtic Park erupted. As we roared and sang our heads off a bizarre event occurred on the field; Referee, Mr Hope allowed Rangers to kick off with at least six Celtic players still celebrating the goal by the Jungle. Rangers poured forward towards the few Celtic defenders still on the field and only a fine save by Bonner prevented a goal. It was another one of those strange decisions which in many years of watching football I have yet to see replicated anywhere else. One of my German friends asked what was going on and why the Referee had done that. Before I could answer a nearby wag interjected, ‘Cos he’s a fuckin’ Hun wi a whistle!’  Andreas who spoke good English looked at me mystified, ‘Welcome to Scottish football,’ I smiled, ‘You’ll soon pick up the lingo.’  They learned a few other Glaswegian phrases that day such as; ‘atsapenalyyafud!’ or ‘deckatbasturt!’ and the ever popular ‘cmonselikfuckinintaethum!’ All in all it was an education for our friends from Germany.

That match ended in a 2-1 win for Celtic and we marched out of the stadium on a high. Sure, we’d end the season without a trophy again but it’s always nice winning those games and even in the darkest seasons Celtic would usually gub them at least once. As we made our way along the Gallowgate again I asked what they thought of the game and they both agreed that it was intense beyond anything they’d experienced before. ‘It’s like your life depended on the result,’ one said.

A few days after that game, Scotland played Germany at Ibrox and I went along with the two aforementioned German lads. On the bus heading along Paisley Road a big group of German fans got on. They were noisy and boisterous but not in any way threatening.  My two companions seemed tense, ‘Bavarians’ one mumbled, as if this was in itself an explanation. It transpired that regional tensions and rivalries exist in Germany as they do anywhere else. There was, at least in footballing terms, no love lost between Saxons of northern Germany and their southern compatriots from Bavaria. Andreas muttered, ‘They drive around with car plates saying ‘freistatt Bayern’ (free state Bavaria) and think they are better than the rest of us.’ He then told me about the imaginary line drawn in Germany called the ‘Weißwurstäquator,’ (The white sausage equator) which separates the ‘crazy’ southern Germans from the rest. I guess all countries have these tensions and divisions but it was interesting to see it at first hand.  

Celtic’s trip to Munich this week got me thinking about why many German supporters have a soft spot for Scottish football. You’d think with the power and prestige of the Bundesliga they’d be happy with their lot and disinterested in a small league on the periphery of Western Europe. One told me it’s because football in Scotland is rawer, more like the way it used to be in Germany. For some it’s politics with left leaning supports like FC St Pauli admiring Celtic supporters for their willingness to engage in politics in the sporting arena and champion causes close to their heart. Mostly though I think they like Scottish supporters for their humour, passion and willingness to back their team over and over even though it is unlikely to win.

Football is at its heart a tribal game and in the big leagues of Europe, awash with money the corporate side of football is dominating more. In England we see football tourists with half and half scarves containing the names of clubs who are traditionally bitter rivals. I could never envisage anyone producing a Celtic-Rangers version of that! There is something of a kickback against modern football with its high ticket prices which drive less wealthy fans out of the game. We have seen protests in France and England about extortionate pricing and even a huge display in Tunisia which read: ‘Football-Created by the poor, stolen by the rich.’

Perhaps some still see in smaller leagues around Europe a more innocent time when money didn’t rule everything. As the so called elite clubs of Europe mumble about cutting the number of clubs from smaller nations playing in the Champions League they’d do well to remember the roots of this wonderful game and lose some of their arrogance, greed and avarice.

Football belongs to us all not just the rich.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Billy Boys

Billy Boys
I attended a funeral in a cemetery in the north of Glasgow some years back and as we made our way out, I got chatting to an old fella whose face spoke of violent encounters in his youth. ‘A few characters buried in here,’ he informed me before listing various gangland figures who had their final resting place in that tranquil green acre. ‘The biggest character of the lot doesn’t even have a headstone,’ he went on. His tales got me thinking about the history of my home city and the echoes of the past which still reverberate today.

Between the wars Glasgow was to say the least a very tough city to live in for those of limited means; mass unemployment, poverty and a vicious gang culture made some working class districts mean indeed. The gangs held sway in many areas with names like The Shamrock, the Derry, the Norman Conks, the Cumbie, the Tim Malloys and the Billy Boys entering common parlance. The names of these gangs often betrayed the sectarian nature of the city’s geography. The influx of Irish migrants during the mid and late nineteenth century saw Glasgow’s Catholic population grow hugely. They were far from welcomed by a vociferous and aggressive minority in the major cities who saw the newcomers as competition for jobs and houses and found the Catholic religion of the majority of these migrants reawakening old prejudices.

The slump which followed World War One saw unemployment and poverty at high levels in Scotland. As is usually the case in such times, some looked for a convenient scapegoat and the Irish and their offspring were an easy target. Street gangs with a pronounced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish agenda appeared; chief among them the Billy Boys in the east end of Glasgow. Founded by Billy Fullarton a local man with no love for Catholics, the Billy Boys and their junior wing the ‘Derry’ were said to have 800 members. Local legend has it that Fullarton was attacked and badly beaten by a rival, Catholic gang and founded the Billy Boys to counter them. Whatever the truth, the Catholics who made up a large percentage of the population of Bridgeton in Glasgow’s east end were not prepared to sit back and play the passive victim. They gave as good as they got and from the tenements of French Street, Poplin Street and Norman Street came the Norman Conks, a gang every bit as violent of the Billy Boys. Some of their clashes were almost medieval given the weaponry and savagery displayed.

Orange marching season was often the time of highest tension as the Orange Order made a point of marching through areas such as the Gorbals, Calton and other areas with a high Catholic population. The Billy Boys and their band came along too and the predictable riot often ensued. The gang members were usually men in their 20s and 30s although older men were often involved too. The social conditions which helped spawn the gangs were presided over by Politicians who often used them for their own purposes. There were strong links between Freemasonry, Orangeism and the Conservative Party in Scotland in those days and local Politicians could call on the Billy Boys to disrupt meetings of the Labour Party. Indeed dedicated sectarian political parties such as the Scottish Protestant League and the Protestant Action Party could boast of over 30% share of the vote in local elections in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were fascist overtones to some of their policies and this had its attractions for men like Fullerton.

During the 1926 General Strike when workers fought against poverty wages, Fullerton and some of his colleagues acted as strike breakers and received medals and certificates for their activities. Given the direction of travel Rangers Football Club decided on in the years after 1912, it was only to be expected that they would have the faithful backing of groups like the Billy Boys. Their song was soon echoing around Ibrox and is still heard on occasion today…

Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys
Hello, hello, you'll know us by our noise
We're up to our knees in Fenian blood
Surrender or you'll die
For we are the Brigton Billy Boys’

The City fathers grew weary of Glasgow’s reputation being trashed by the razor gangs and popular novels such as ‘No mean city.’ They decided to act and called in a Police Chief called Percy Sillitoe who had built a reputation as a tough, no nonsense cop and who had pacified the gangs of Sheffield. Sillitoe arrived in Glasgow and immediately decided to fight fire with fire. He recruit teams of big, tough cops who were encouraged to ‘get stuck in,’ when they tangled with the gangs. Batons were soon breaking heads and van loads of police roamed the city waiting for the call on their new radios to go deal with any disturbance. The courts and jail cells were soon full and many other gang members found themselves in the city’s casualty wards after tangling with Sillitoe’s ‘batter squads.’ The days of the gangs having free reign in Glasgow were over.

Fullarton himself was arrested when he led a gang of drunken, tooled up, Billy Boys through Glasgow. He had foolishly brought a child along and the gang were intercepted by a smaller but determined group of Policemen who arrested him after a brutal struggle. He was sent to prison for 10 months for being drunk in charge of a child. As World War 2 approached he found common cause with Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists and soon had a 200 strong group of Black-shirts under his command. It is said he also started the first Glasgow chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

‘King’ Billy Fullerton was a product of his times but the attitudes he and his like fostered still echo in some corners of Scottish society. In 1962 he died alone and impoverished in a Bridgeton tenement. In that same year, Percy Sillitoe, the hammer of the gangs died too. It is recorded that 1000 people walked with Fullerton’s cortege from Bridgeton to Riddrie Cemetery. Scottish poet Edwin Morgan recalled his funeral with an ambiguous poem which at once scorned the violence of men like Fullerton but also offered some mitigation in calling out the appalling social conditions which spawned men like him….

King Billy by Edwin Morgan
Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees,
The gates shone cold
Flaring the hissing leaves and branches
swung heavy across lamps.
Gravestones huddle in drizzling shadow,
flickering streetlight scanned the requiescats
a name and an urn, a date, a dove
picked out, lost, half regained.
What is this dripping wreath blown from its grave?
Red, white, blue and gold
To our leader of Thirty years ago’-
Bareheaded, in dark suits, with flutes
and drums they brought him here, in procession
seriously, King Billy of Brigton, dead,
from Bridgeton Cross a memory of violence
brooding days of empty bellies
billiard smoke and a sour pint
boots or fists, famous sherrickings
the word, the scuffle, the flash, the shout
bloody crumpling in the close,
bricks for Papish windows, Get
the Conks next time, the Conks ambush
the Billy Boys, The Billy Boys the conks, till
Sillitoe scuffs the razors down the stank,
No, but it isn’t the violence they remember
but the legend of a violent man
born poor, gang leader in the bad times
of idleness and boredom, lost in better days
a Bouncer in a betting club
a quiet man at last, dying
alone in Bridgeton in a box bed.
So a thousand people stopped the traffic
for the hearse of a folk hero and the flutes
threw onward Christian Soldiers to the wind
from unironic lips, the mourners kept
in step and there were some who wept,
Go from the grave. The shrill flutes
are silent, the march dispersed
Deplore what is to be deplored
and then find out the rest.

Glasgow has long since left the violence of the inter war years in the history books. Of course it can still be as gritty and tough as any other city but the levels of poverty and ignorance which produced the razor gangs of the 1920’s and 30’s are long gone. So too are the disgraceful housing conditions and over-crowding which blighted so many lives. It would be wrong to suggest that the dragon of bigotry has been completely banished from our land but it is certainly in retreat. Those who ruled over a society where slums were tolerated and people left in ignorance and disease bear their share of responsibility for the genesis of men like Fullerton. As Victor Hugo wrote in ‘Les Miserables’…

“If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”