Friday, 22 September 2017

Passion and Pride

Passion and Pride

Glasgow May 2003
Jim Reilly sat absentmindedly gazing out the window when the familiar clatter of the letterbox broke into his thoughts and told him the post had arrived. He collected the small bunch of letters and returned to his favoured spot on the couch. He sorted through the letters mumbling as he did so, ‘Junk, bill, bill, Annie’s catalogue…..’ he stopped when he saw the last letter in the bunch. The smart white envelope was addressed to him. He opened it carefully and a frisson of excitement passed through him when he saw the familiar letter head of the Celtic Football Club. He began to read…

‘Dear Mr Reilly, we are pleased to inform you that you have been successful in the ballot for a ticket for the UEFA Cup Final between Celtic and FC Porto on May 21st 2003…..’

Yasssss!’ roared Jim in a voice which started his wife Annie who was pottering about the kitchen. She swung the door open and regarded her husband of 41 years, ‘what are you shouting about ya auld fool!’  Jim was already on his feet and heading towards her. ‘I got a ticket for Seville!’ He grabbed his wife and began to waltz her around the living room singing as he did so, ‘For it’s a grand old team to play for, for it’s a grand old team to see…’ She shook her head and smiled, ‘Daft as a brush, you’ve got Celtic on the brain.’  Jim however wasn’t listening. He was lost in thoughts of a sunny day in Spain watching the Celts fight it out for a European trophy. He had missed out on Lisbon because of illness. Missed Milan because of work commitments but this time he would be going. Nothing would stop him….

Later that night his three sons were in the house celebrating with him and helping him book a flight to Seville. Thomas, a gruff 30 year old with a fashionably long beard and a passion for Celtic every bit as strong as his old man’s, was explaining internet booking to his dad. He was also sounding annoyed at the price hikes going on just because Celtic were likely to have thousands of fans looking to make the trip. ‘It was £90 for a flight before the Boavista game and now it’s £345; Robbing Bastards!’ He persevered though and eventually got his old man a seat on a flight the day before the game. Gerry the middle son, Celtic daft like both his brothers, said half in jest to his father, ‘Mind Da if ye don’t want to go I’ll step in, pay you for all yer outlay.’ Frankie the youngest at 23 cut across him, ‘away you go, if my Da cannae make it, I’ll be stepping in so you jog on ya chancer!’ Gerry was having none of it, ‘You’ll be at Uni ya dafty, you cannae go!’ Frankie was adamant, ‘If I get my Da’s ticket I’ll be there and besides your misses won’t let you go tae the pub never mind on a bender tae Spain.’ Jim Reilly ended the growing argument by insisting that he’d be going and nothing would stop him cheering the Celts on in the heat of Seville. ‘I missed Lisbon and Milan boys, I’m not getting any younger and I might not see another European final wi the Celts in it. So you can stop yer squabbling, I’ll be going tae Seville.’  Thomas nodded at this and said, ‘That’s it settled, my Da’s going,’ then added with a grin, ‘and even if he wasn’t his ticket would go tae the eldest.’ The arguments started again as Jim Reilly shook his head with a smile. He’d passed on his love of Celtic to his boys all right and that made him happy.

Fate however, in the shape of Jim Reilly’s undiagnosed heart condition, stepped in though to deny him the chance of going to Seville. A week before the Final with Fc Porto he collapsed in his local pub and nothing could be done to save him. His three sons welcomed a house full of family, friends and neighbours into the family home where their old man was laid out in his finest suit. He looked as if he was sleeping someone commented and in truth he did look peaceful, serene almost. As the men drank beer and reminisced in the living room, the women, led by their redoubtable auntie Bernadette, said the rosary by the coffin. It was solemn and sad occasion but even in the darkness of such events the men still talked about the upcoming final in Seville. ‘Yer Da would have loved tae go,’ one friend said, ‘followed the Tic aw his days.’ Another commented, ‘I heard about a ticket going for £600, utter madness.’  The three brothers looked at each other and said nothing. No one had forgotten the ticket for the final but decency demanded they hold their peace until after the funeral.

That evening the undertakers took Jim Reilly to the church he had been married in and in which his three sons had been baptised. A hundred or so family and friends were there for the short ceremony which preceded the funeral Mass which would take place the following morning. As they left the church and stepped out into suitable sombre Glasgow drizzle, Thomas said quietly to his two brothers, ‘We’ll need to find that ticket and decide after the funeral who’s getting it.’ Frankie nodded, ‘Aye, we’ll roll a dice or something.’ They agreed and headed for home.

Later that evening after two hours of rummaging through drawers and searching high and low they still hadn’t found the ticket. As various relatives drank and chattered the three brothers were exasperated. ‘Ask my Maw,’ ventured Frank, ‘she’ll know.’  Gerry waited until a suitable moment arrived and even though he felt a bit awkward, asked his mother, ‘Ma, any idea where my Da put that ticket for the cup final?’ The pale looking woman thought for a moment before replying, ‘Now let me think… Aye, he put it in the inside pocket of his black suit. I saw him do it; it was in a white envelope.’ Then a strange look came over her face and she covered her mouth with her hand. Gerry looked at her, ‘what’s up, Ma?’ She looked at her son and said simply, ‘He’s wearing that suit!’

As the alcohol took effect later that night the three brothers discussed the dilemma. Thomas was the more accepting, ‘It’s gone boys, forget it and we’ll watch the final doon the pub.’ Frankie was having none of it, ‘I’ll get doon the chapel early, explain the situation tae old Father Mac and unscrew the lid and get the ticket and have the lid back oan in 5 minutes?’ Gerry was appalled. ‘Ye cannae unscrew a coffin lid in a chapel ya madman! This is yer Da’s funeral and you want tae act like Burke and fuckin Hare?’ Frankie remained stubborn, ‘So you want a ticket tae a European final to be cremated with my Da? He’d want us tae get it! I could whip the lid aff in two minutes!’ Gerry shook his head incredulously, ‘Whip the lid aff? It’s yer da’s coffin no a fuckin’ lunch box!’ Are you actually planning go tae yer Da’s funeral wi a screwdriver in yer pocket like a tin pot chib man? Fuck sake Frankie, you’re losing the plot bro!’ 

As the debate raged their cousin, Johnny, whom everyone called ‘Joker’ decided it would be an appropriate time to lighten the mood with some of his jokes. ‘When my mate’s da got ill they covered his back wi lard…. He went downhill fast after that!’ There was laughter in the room after the gloom of the past few days. Joker continued, ‘Never told the burd I’ve replaced our bed wi a trampoline, she’s gonnae hit the roof!’  Joker’s patter cheered folk as stories, memories and family legends about Jim Reilly began to flow like the seemingly endless supply of beer. There were funny tales of Jim’s adventures following Celtic like the time he drove to a game at Nottingham and ended up outside Coventry City’s ground. The brothers found the stories and the laughter comforting. This was the sort of send-off their old man would want. As the evening drew to a close, their old man’s best friend of over forty years began to sing an old song which hit the spot for all of them…

‘I took a trip to Parkhead, to the dear old Paradise,
When the teams made their appearance, sure the tears came to my eyes
A familiar face was missing from the green and white brigade
T’was the face of young John Thomson for his last game he had played….’

The brothers knew that a familiar face would be missing from their lives now but they’d soldier on with their memories of their old man to console them. Those memories were many and varied. From their first visit to Celtic Park as boys hand in hand with their Dad to his fake fury when the three lads jumped the subway as teenagers to attend a Celtic game at Ibrox. Their mum was furious as the oldest was just 14 at the time and old Jim ripped into them too. Once their mother had left the room he grinned at them and whispered, ‘It’s something else lads eh? Glad we stuffed them!’

The following day Jim Reilly took his final trip to Daldowie Crematorium, the convoy of cars following the hearse stopping for a few poignant moments on the London Road outside Celtic Park.  The service at the church had been very fitting. Gerry had even theatrically frisked Frankie to ensure he wasn’t bringing a screwdriver. Frankie though had seen the error of his ways and accepted that his plan to open the coffin had been ill conceived and just a little inappropriate.

Gerry had looked at Frankie as the curtains closed and their old man’s coffin was hidden from view in the crematorium but all thoughts of a ticket to the UEFA Cup final were banished as the tears fell and they said their last goodbyes to the old fella. They left the little chapel to as strains of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ echoed off the walls. Saying goodbye was so very hard but they knew they had to pick up the threads again for their own sakes and for their mother’s. They stumbled through the day, shaking hands, meeting old friends and distant relatives.

They had another house full after the cremation and the drink was soon flowing again. ‘Gerry,’ called Mrs Reilly, who sat with a neighbour in the corner, ‘Could you fetch my wedding pictures; I want to show it to Agnes. The album is in the box on top of the wardrobe.’  Gerry opened the bedroom door and stood on a chair to reach a rather faded white box which contained his parents wedding photos. He put the box on the bed and opened it to check the album was there. On top of the album was a white envelope and a curious Gerry looked briefly inside it. A brightly coloured ticket to the 2003 UEFA Cup Final looked back as him, ‘Fuck me!’ he mumbled, ‘it never got burned… it’s here!’

The three brothers were unanimous about what should happen to the ticket. It was raffled by the local Celtic Supporters Club and over £500 was raised for charity and donated in the name on Jim Reilly. As they stood in a packed pub watching Celtic walk proudly out onto the field in Seville they roared like every other Celtic fan around the world, ‘Come on Celtic! Intae them!’  The game would prove to be a roller coaster of emotions for the brothers as it was for hundreds of thousands of other watching Celtic fans but no matter how it turned out their love affair with Celtic would never waiver. That passion and pride in their club would always burn brightly. 

Old Jim had seen to that.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Lost in contemplation

Lost in contemplation

Disappointing as this week's drubbing from PSG at Celtic Park was, a bit of perspective is required. Most Celtic fans recognised early on that we entered the Champions’ League Group stages as massive underdogs when it came to facing the likes of PSG and Bayern. Our real battle was always going to be with Anderlecht for a spot in the Europa League in the New Year. Such is the financial clout of the so called 'elite' clubs of European football they can call on the services of players valued at more than Celtic FC in its entirety. We all know this and we accept the new realities of European football. The days when a club from one of the smaller leagues like Celtic, Red Star Belgrade or Steaua Bucharest can win the Champions League are gone, perhaps forever.

It may irk supporters in the those leagues when they recognise the undeniable fact that UEFA has machinated with the more powerful clubs to create this vicious circle where more and more money is given to the clubs who habitually show up in the later stages of the Champions League and this in turn, combined with bloated TV revenue, allows these clubs to continue to buy the best players in the world and keep the gravy train rolling along. It makes competing with them harder but even so Celtic should have made life more difficult for the aristocrats of French football who were allowed to play their game unhindered by the Hoops’ timid play. It was a harsh reminder that Celtic also started last year’s campaign with a mauling in Barcelona. That was another game in which Celtic barely laid a glove on the more fancied opposition. If we’re honest, we didn’t expect to win our match with PSG but perhaps we were right to expect the team to give a better account of themselves? Brendan Rodgers himself was clear that the mentality at Celtic Park needs to change and hints that it takes time but also that he is the man to change it…

‘For me it’s the mentality, I think for Celtic to qualify for the Champions League is huge in many ways but that can’t just be seen to be success. I want us to go into the Champions League and impose our way of playing, our way of working. I know it’s a million miles away financially from where other teams are at but it should still allow us to compete and of course that takes a little bit of time to get that mentality across. It shouldn’t just be a celebration of us qualifying, we know how huge that is for everyone, how huge it is for the nation to have that representation but that just can’t be it and it won’t be!’

The away supporters were generous in their praise of Celtic Park and the home support even if magazine’s like L’Equipe scored Celtic’s display as a meagre 3.2 out of 10. Baptiste Mandrillon, a French Journalist said of his night in Glasgow…

‘My eyes widened and my lips closed so as to appreciate this better, as one would go for the first time to the Louvre or to the Coliseum. Celtic Park is well of this caste, one of those monuments which exists nowhere else and whose weight of history makes it necessarily incomparable. Getting there is a pilgrimage. Yes, for the beauty of those green and white scarves held high in unison but also to remember that the sport and its essence do not have to be diluted in spite of time and football becoming a lucrative business. In the heart of this northern city of the United Kingdom, with its brick walls, football is visceral. One is born with it, one transmits it and the continuation is impossible to escape. This is a true supporter culture. In Europe it is being lost more and more. Despite the result never being in doubt the Celtic supporters never stopped encouraging their players, especially after each goal, almost as if they had scored. Before leaving this evening to register in the memory bank, we allowed ourselves to wander a little in the winding corridors of this rustic stadium, how fitting to get lost in contemplating the trophies and photos one sees here.’

PSG owner, Nasser Al-Khelaifi also spoke of his time at Celtic Park, saying that it was; ‘the best atmosphere I have ever experienced in my life, the Celtic fans were really wonderful.’ We don’t mind such praise but we would also like the team to turn up and at least give the visitors a game. That ‘mentality’ Rodgers spoke of instilling in his players will be needed in the games ahead. Celtic travel to Belgium to take on Anderlecht in ten days and they simply have to show up for that game. It will be tough enough coming as it does in the wake of a trip to Ibrox with all the emotion and effort which goes into such games. There needs to be a reaction from the Celtic players just as there was when they returned from Barcelona after that 7-0 battering and gave Manchester City a real fight at Celtic Park.

The last song heard at Celtic Park on Tuesday came from the PSG fans who chanted ‘Celtic, Celtic’ in appreciation of a home support who never got on their team’s back and backed them throughout what was a difficult 90 minutes. One PSG fans said, “It was an incredible atmosphere. They are very welcoming. The end of the match was really nice. This is the best trip of my life.”  Celtic fans do create an incredible atmosphere on those big European nights under the lights. It’s a reminder in these days of soulless stadiums and corporate clubs run as rich men’s playthings that real football still survives and real supporters still keep the visceral fan culture of the old terraces alive. We live in  a world where a rich owner can order his club (Cardiff City) to change their colours from blue to red because he thinks it’s a lucky colour; a world where average ticket prices in the English top league have, according to one report, risen by over 700% since 1990. In the less wealthy Scottish League where ticket money is a much larger percentage of clubs’ income a season ticket for Celtic’s Hampden year in the mid 1990’s cost £160 today it is closer to £500. Football fans may be seen by some as ‘customers’ and treated accordingly but the passion, affection and even love some have for their football club goes well beyond that of a mere customer. Celtic may struggle at times against the world selects the rich clubs put together but their support remains world class. The Paris fans were lavish in their praise because they see the way football is going and recognise that even on the north-west fringes of Europe real supporters still back their team the way they have since football was invented.

Of course we don’t expect to win the Champions League but we do believe that even coming from the relatively poor environment of the SPFL we should still be able to put a team on the field to give the big guns a competitive game. We are less than 18 months into the Rodgers project and it has undoubtedly seen Celtic improve and become a better side. It is a work in progress however and we believe we have the right man in place to instil a pattern of play and a mentality which will see Celtic improve further. Tuesday night was painful to watch at times as Celtic were comprehensively outplayed but that magnificent support stuck by the team in that quintessentially Celtic way they always have.

They deserve better and I for one believe that Brendan Rodgers will in time give them a side which will be more competitive at that level. The Champions league is where Celtic strive to be on a regular basis and as UEFA bends its knee to the big leagues again and cuts the number of teams qualifying via the ‘champions route’ Celtic use, it will get tougher to make the group stages in the years ahead. It would be sad indeed if the competition became little more than a tournament for the rich.

As I headed away from Celtic Park on Tuesday in the steady drizzle of a Glasgow autumn, there was admiration for PSG among the Celtic support and their undoubted talents but frustration too that Celtic took stage fright and didn’t really compete. As one fan said with typical Scottish bluntness,

‘They didnae believe. Rodgers needs to kick some arse, ye need tae show up on these big nights not stand back and admire the opposition.’

I think he was right.

Saturday, 9 September 2017



Tony McLaughlin pushed opened the heavy wooden door of the bar and looked around for the familiar figure of his brother. The place was full as it always was on match days and the noisy chatter and laughter contrasted to his mood as he eased through the crowd towards the corner where his brother and his friends usually stood. Somewhere out of sight a lone voice began a familiar song and it was taken up by scores of voices…

‘Oh I am a merry plough boy and I plough the fields by day
Till a sudden thought came to my mind that I should run away
Now I’ve always hated slavery since the day that I was born….’

Tony reached the corner of the bar and noticed his brother’s best friend there with another man he didn’t know. ‘Aw right Noel? Looking for Frankie, any idea where he is?’  Noel Meechan, a thirty year old with a mop of black curly hair and a ruddy red face from his outdoor work with the Parks Department, smiled at Tony ‘How ye doing Tee? He’s in the bog, be oot in a minute.’ Noel clearly saw from Tony’s face that all wasn’t well but before he could ask about it, Frankie McLaughlin appeared behind his brother. ‘Aw right bro?’ he began with a mile, ‘You slumming it doon the Gallowgate today. Thought you were a Merchant City man?’  Tony leaned closer to his brother and said quietly in his ear, ‘we need tae go, it’s my Da, it’s time.’ Frankie’s face spoke volumes as he turned to his friend and handed him his Celtic season book, ‘No be making it the day Noel, lend that tae wan of the guys.’ Noel took the small green card, a knowing look on his face, ‘Nae bother pal, take care.’  Noel watched the two brothers head through the crowded bar towards the door. He knew their old man was nearing the end of his journey. It struck him as a little ironic that it might end on this bright September day when the old fella’s beloved Celtic were taking on Rangers.

The huge bulk of the new Queen Elizabeth hospital came into view in all its multi-coloured modernity. For most Glaswegians though this would always be the Southern General. Tony Parked the car and they walked briskly into one of the older buildings from the original hospital which was still being used.  Tony led his brother into the building and along a corridor which smelled of disinfectant before turning left into another corridor and entering a small Ward where a few family members had gathered. His Uncle Joe, looking more emotional than the brothers had ever seen him greeted them with a handshake and said in a quiet voice shaking with emotion, ‘Aw right boys, you can go in now, we’ve said our goodbyes.’ The brothers greeted their cousins quietly then entered the small room at the end of the Ward where their old man lay eyes closed on a bed. Frankie closed the door quietly and they sat by their father. Old John McLaughlin looked frailer than his 63 years, shrunken and pale, a shadow of the vigorous man they grew up with. They regarded him in silence for a moment; only the old fella’s ragged breathing audible in the room as he slept.

After a long moment Tony took his old man’s hand and spoke quietly, ‘All right Da, Frankie’s here too, we’re missing the Rangers match for you, some timing auld yin!’ He smiled a bittersweet smile, ‘I remember the first game you took us tae, Remember that night Cadete scored against Aberdeen and the place went mad? I was eight and Frankie was six. Couldn’t believe we didn’t win the league that year, Tommy’s team played some great fitbaw.’ Frankie nodded at his brother’s words and added, ‘We got there in 98 though eh? Remember how drunk you came home when we beat St Johnstone? You fell over the mop pale and ended up wi a black eye.’ The brothers laughed quietly, their eyes moist remembering good times they shared with their old man. Tony continued, ‘Mind that Polis horse at Hampden? You had on your new black coat and it sneezed on ye, covered the coat with horse snotters! You were doing yer nut, shouting at the Cop who was just laughing.’ Frankie smiled at that memory and added, ‘I remember the Supporters Club dance when you and Bertie Auld were on the stage singing the Grand old team, you never looked happier or prouder.’

They talked in this quiet manner to their slumbering father for a long time. Celtic was such a huge part of their lives; so many memories of times shared together revolved around their club. So many conversations, arguments and discussions were about games, players or incidents they’d watched together. Celtic had been handed down the generations in the McLaughlin family like a precious gift and the brothers had got the bug early. They had travelled all over Scotland and Europe watching their team, sharing in all the triumphs and disasters, all the ups and downs that come from being so involved with a football club like Celtic.

Their old man had even argued with the Head Master of their High School over taking them to Seville in School time. The boys had sat outside the Head Teacher’s office and listened to the raised voices through the door. The unmistakable tones of their father could be heard shouting, ‘This is this generations Lisbon! Ye cannae deny the boys a trip tae Seville!’  The Headmaster’s calmer tones had argued to the contrary mentioning exams and setting an example but the Tony and Frankie then heard their exasperated old man end the conversation with the Head Teacher with the withering words, ‘Ah don’t gie a fuck, they’re going!’ When their old man came out of the office Frankie had smiled at him and said, ‘You’re a fuckin Legend Da!’

After a bittersweet hour or two of laughter and tears a Doctor entered the room. He smiled a sympathetic smile at the two brothers before checking the machine beside the old man’s bed. He used a stethoscope to listen to his chest before exhaling and turning to the brothers, ‘He’s gone. I’m sorry for your loss.’  Tony, still holding his father’s hand had been so engrossed in the memories they had been sharing about times spent with their old man that he hadn’t noticed the ragged breathing had ceased. The doctor laid his hand on Tony’s shoulder before leaving them to their grief. The brothers sat amid a heavy silence their faces streaked with tears. It was Frankie who broke the silence by saying the words he had said all those years ago when his old man had argued with the Head Teacher about taking them out of school to go to Seville… ‘You’re a fuckin Legend Da!’

A few miles in Glasgow’s east end Stuart Armstrong ran across the Rangers penalty box before hitting a beautifully disguised shot back across the goalkeeper to make it Celtic 5 Rangers 1. A huge roar split the east end sky as a people celebrated another victory for their club.

Old John would have liked that.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Jousting with Giants

Jousting with Giants

As summer fades and the autumn days arrive we turn our thoughts to the Champions’ League group stages and for Celtic they bring a mixture of glamour and possibility. Celtic’s group contains two of the biggest and most powerful clubs in European football in the shape of PSG and Bayern Munich. It also contains the respected but more modest RC Anderlecht. The realities of facing the so called elite of European football can be tough for sides like Celtic as the financial clout of Bayern and PSG mean that they can fill their squads with some of the best players from around the world

Paris Saint Germain was bought in recent years by the Qatar Sports Investment company and huge sums have been spent securing the services of players like Silva, Alves and Neymar. So much so that UEFA have begun investigating the club under their financial fair play rules which state that clubs should aim to break even in fiscal terms. The club currently has a turnover of around half a billion pounds a year and is ranked in the top six wealthiest clubs in the world. Celtic will face players of the quality of Thiago Silva, Danny Alves, Angel Di Maria, Neymar and Kyilan Mbappe when PSG arrive at Celtic Park on match day one. The Parisians have started their French league campaign with three straight wins, scoring 12 goals in the process and will be a formidable test for Celtic.

The Paris club have had their problems with supporters’ behaviour in recent years. Older Celtic fans will remember their match at Celtic Park in the mid 1990’s when we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the PSG fans brawling among themselves in the corner of the North Stand. These long standing tensions in the PSG support are political and cultural and came to a head when rival factions clashed and a young fan was killed. The Boulonge Boys, (known as ‘Kobistes’) are known to espouse far right views in banners and chants. They traditionally turn their wrath on the more multi-cultural ‘Auteuils’ groups among the PSG support and they in turn give as good as they get. The death of Boulonge Boys member Yann Lorence in 2010 seemed to calm things for a while and the courts demanded PSG take action to curb these excesses. PSG acted recently to stop such groups purchasing blocks of tickets for sections of the ground and banned certain better known members of the ultras group from the stadium but the divisions among their support continue simmering just below the surface.

Like PSG, Bayern Munich present a formidable challenge to Celtic and the Bundesliga Champions are packed full of class players such as Robben, Lewandowski, Neuer, Ribery, Hummels, Goetze and Thomas Mueller. They are currently on a run of 5 consecutive titles in Germany and bring that mixture of power, technique and organisation to their play. They’ve been over the course so often that nothing much will phase this battle hardened and effective squad. In 20 ties with German opposition in Europe Celtic has won just 3 so there will be an air of realism around when they come to Glasgow.

Anderlecht are a much more attainable challenge for the Hoops and have had a stuttering start to their league season winning just one of their opening five games and sitting in eleventh place in the table. Their squad is made up of mostly Belgian players with a smattering of Africans. They are no mugs however and Celtic will need to put in good performances to overcome them. The Belgian League is rated 8th in UEFA’s coefficient table which gives some indication of the standard there. The SPFL is rated 26th and only Celtic’s efforts in recent years have stopped it sliding further down the rankings.  That being said Celtic should be targeting Anderlecht as the club they aim to take most points from. I’m sure Brendan Rodgers is thinking similar things as his target of European football after Christmas would most likely be achieved by a third place finish and a slot in the Europa League. It will be far from easy but we should approach all the group games with no fear and give it our very best shot.

We are not without hope of taking something from the big guns in the group especially at home. Bayern fought out a rear-guard action at Celtic Park in the Martin O’Neil era and seemed delighted to escape with a 0-0 draw. That Bayern side was packed with international stars such as Ballack, Kahn, Schweinsteiger and Lizarazu but Celtic fought them every inch of the way and might have snatched a famous win. I can still recall their players punching the air and hugging after the final whistle as if they’d achieved some great feat. PSG too, for all their opulence, are not invincible and Celtic Park will be rocking when they arrive in a week or two. Rodgers will do his homework and set the team out to try and get a result against these sides and there is always a chance when that support roars and raises the players to new levels.

Teams of the calibre of Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid and Benfica have all rolled up in Glasgow’s east end with fanfares ringing in their ears only to head home with their tails between their legs. Nothing is impossible in football and for all their wealth and superstars; it remains eleven men against eleven. Of course Bayern and PSG will need to perform under par and Celtic rise to the occasion but in all my years of watching Celtic in Europe I never go to a game thinking we will lose. There is always the possibility of a surprise and that factor is what makes football the fascinating and occasionally unpredictable game it is.

There’s a magical feeling on those big European nights at Celtic Park and even though in footballing terms we are jousting with giants, we have brought enough of them down over the years to give us a glimmer of hope. Celtic fans are a realistic bunch these days and know how difficult this group will be but they want to show Europe again that fantastic and fervent support which many of the rich clubs around Europe can only dream of. They also want to show that Rodgers’ current team is a vibrant and effective young side which can play decent football. We may not have the financial wealth of those clubs in the big leagues but we have the riches of a wonderful European heritage and a support which is truly world class.

We’ll shortly begin this fascinating European journey again and I for one can’t wait. We’ll see some great players at Celtic Park and pit our wits against some top coaches. Our young side will continue its education and surely learn much from playing club football at the very highest level.  The spectacle of a full Celtic Park under the lights on a big European night remains one of the great sights in sport and when that outstanding support fuses as one with the team they make for a potent combination.

Whatever happens we’ll be right behind the Bhoys and giving 100% to drive them on and lift them in those difficult moments when they need us most. These are great days to be a Celtic fan and we live in hope that our Champions League adventure will give us more memorable nights to add to the long list of games which have gone before.

We still have dreams and songs to sing.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Light a candle

Light a candle

As I strolled happily along the Gallowgate after Celtic’s convincing win against Astana this week, I found myself behind a Dad & two boys of about 9 or 10. The lads were reliving the game in highly excited tones and even sang a few songs together, oblivious to the world. Their youthful enthusiasm and sheer exuberance made me smile. It reminded me of days long gone when, like them, I trailed along behind my old man as he marched through the dark streets of Glasgow towards Celtic Park. I still recall that tinge of excitement when I first saw the old floodlights shining through the gloom and knew that I was close to the stadium.

In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowds milling around the stadium, hear the noise, the songs, the smell the beer and cigarette smoke which lingered in the air. Then it was up to the turnstile where strong hands lifted me over and then that sheer adrenaline rush of reaching the top of the concrete stairs and seeing that lush, emerald rectangle of turf illuminated before us. The songs would already be pouring from the Jungle onto the pitch and to a boy starting out on his time as a Celtic fan it was an exhilarating assault on the senses. This was our theatre, our field of dreams for a couple of magical hours. Here a community gathered to back their team, sing their songs and dream a little.

As I watched Leigh Griffiths slam home Celtic’s fifth goal against Astana there was a joyful surge of mostly younger fans towards the striker as he celebrated in front of us. One or two even surmounted the barriers and raced to embrace their hero. It was in some ways a very symbolic moment. This club means so much to so many people and in that moment the fans and the players were one. When that happens Celtic is capable of punching above their weight and giving anyone a game. Celtic is now very close to the Group stages of the Champions League and only a minor miracle can stop them. You get the idea that Brendan Rodgers is too shrewd to allow anyone to think the job is done until it is actually over.

The euphoria which followed Wednesday’s thumping win wasn’t shared by all in Scotland. Ewan Murray, writing in the Guardian suggested that Celtic’s qualification for the Champions league is good for Celtic and no one else. He said the morning after the match …

But great for Scottish football? A boost to the status of the national sport? We should be spared this overreaction. When a club – or two clubs, let us be clear – with fiscal power to dwarf all before them earns another £30m advantage, the case for broader benefit is virtually non-existent. Only two factors serve as counterpoints: other clubs receive a small and variable consolidation payment from UEFA because of Celtic’s progress, and if indigenous players are afforded more game time against top-level opposition then no harm can be done. Beyond that, the benefit is entirely Celtic’s, as they should be perfectly happy to admit in celebration of their own efforts.’

The belief that Celtic’s success in recent years is bad for Scottish football isn’t universally shared. The club will sell out two stands at Rugby Park this weekend. They will also endow the other top flight clubs with a solidarity payment from UEFA of more than £250,000 should they qualify for the Champions League and for a club like St Johnstone, Kilmarnock or Motherwell that is equivalent to the revenue raised by two or three home games. Celtic is playing with several Scotland regulars in the side and they will be learning from facing top class opposition in Europe. The club is also bringing through Scottish promising youngsters from the Academy who will hopefully develop into Scottish international prospects.

Nor is Scottish football outside Glasgow’s east end devoid of hope. Aberdeen plan a new stadium, Hearts will open a new stand soon to complete the modernisation of Tynecastle, Hibs are back in the SPFL and filling their ground, even Dundee are looking like moving from dens. Rangers may be languishing due to lack of funding and board room squabbling but a club with such a big support will surely one day get their act together? With regards this so called lack of competition, seven different clubs have won the Scottish Cup in the last decade and seven different clubs have won the League cup in that same time period. The big clubs will always dominate in smaller countries as history shows. In Scotland 102 titles have been won by Celtic or Rangers whilst just 19 have been shared by all the other clubs. This is nothing new. The problem isn’t the domination of the title by Celtic, it is the others failing to rise to the challenge Rodgers’ side has lain down.

There’s seems to be an idea that Celtic’s domination of the SPFL is damaging to the game but as in all sports it’s up to the others to raise their game and put in a challenge. Celtic strives to improve each season and is often left to carry the Scottish flag in Europe on their own. Small countries the world over see their national leagues dominated by two or three sides. In Portugal only 2 titles have ever been won by teams outside the ‘big three’ (Benfica, Porto, Sporting CP) and yet their sides do reasonably well in Europe. In Norway, Rosenborg won the title every year from 1992–2004; that’s 13 in a row! Dinamo Zagreb won eleven successive Croatian titles before Rijeka won the league last year. Croatia, population 4.1 million, is ranked ten places above Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient table. Why is that? The Croatian league is poorly supported yet they produce good players who play in the top leagues around Europe. There is the real issue; we are simply not producing enough players of a high enough standard and the footballing authorities in Scotland have dithered for decades about how to reverse this situation.

Scotland’s coefficient as set by UEFA has the SPFL ranked as 26th in Europe. Countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Romania are all ranked higher than Scotland. This is despite the fact that Scotland is per head of population the best supported league in Europe. The problems in Scotland which affects our teams’ performances in Europe is a failure to produce a high standard of players compounded by low levels of finance in the game here. This is particularly true of the TV deal which sees Celtic receive around £3m for winning the title, a sum which is comfortably beaten by Sky pundit Thierry Henry’s yearly pay cheque.

Around Europe the bigger clubs are using their financial muscle to dominate their domestic leagues. Even in the bigger leagues some teams are ruling the roost year after year. Juventus are currently on six in a row while Bayern sit on five. Even the Champions League looks like a rich man’s club as the same mega rich clubs make it to the last eight every year. Indeed the trophy has been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona for six of the past nine years.

Elements of the media in Scotland should stop carping about Celtic’s success and get down to encouraging clubs in the vital job of producing footballers who will raise the standard of our game. A look at the success of Iceland who rose over 100 places in the UEFA rankings in a decade shows that it can be done. Money was invested in grass roots football, in properly trained coaches and supplying purpose built facilities which helped young players develop their skills all year round in the face of their long, cold winters. Huge, bright bubble like structures have been constructed in the tundra like countryside of one of Europe’s most northerly countries and house training facilities which all can access. If Iceland, with a population of 335,000 can build a team which reached the last 8 of the European Championships then surely a football mad country like Scotland could and should aim to be better than we currently are?

Monopoly is seldom good in any business but Celtic’s current domination of the SPFL is no excuse for the poor performances of Scottish clubs in Europe or the national side’s prolonged failure. We’ve been watching our reputation and performance slump for over thirty years and the response of our footballing authorities has been totally inadequate. It remains to be seen if the SFA’s ‘Project Brave’ spearheaded by ex-Celt Malky McKay will finally start to reverse this decline. I hope it does and we get back to producing top players again.

Celtic’s Academy is beginning to produce some promising players to join the impressive Kieran Tierney. Players like Aidan Nesbit, Anthony Ralston and Calvin Miller may soon be pushing at the first team door and young Dembele looks a real prospect too. We saw home produced players such Tierney, McGregor and Forest in action against Astana and that is always pleasing.

Celtic’s success in reaching the Champions League last season and in doing well in the qualifiers this season is something Scottish football should be proud of. There will always be those who dislike the club for their own reasons but like it or not Celtic are currently the only Scottish side doing anything to improve the battered reputation of our game in Europe. Perhaps some should stop carping and try to build sides which will emulate them. As someone once said, ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’

In the meantime the Hoops head for Astana and a real chance to once more secure Champions League football and brighten the dark nights of a Scottish autumn for many of us. I’ll head to those matches (should we qualify) with the same excitement I felt as a boy all those years ago when I ran to keep up with my old man as he marched through the streets of Glasgow to Celtic Park. 

I still get that thrill when I turn the corner and see the lights of Paradise waiting for me.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A long Shadow

A long Shadow

At dawn on Friday 1st September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison of the Westerplatte, Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), in what was to become the first military action in World War Two in Europe. Simultaneously, 62 German divisions supported by 1,300 aircraft of the Luftwaffe commenced the invasion and destruction of Poland. It would take the Wehrmacht just over a month to subdue Poland and the fate of the country was sealed when the Red Army invaded from the east in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

A thousand miles away from the unfolding tragedy in Poland the people of Scotland awoke to find their country on the brink of joining a war which Treaties with Poland suggested they surely would. The Scottish Football League had been awaiting instructions from the Home Office on what to do in the result of the UK going to war and there was an initial period of uncertainty. League matches would go ahead until clubs were notified differently. Saturday 2 September 1939 saw Celtic at Home to Clyde in a bruising match which the Hoops won 1-0. Rangers played on that same day at Cathkin Park where they defeated Third Lanark 2-1.
The following day Britain and France declared war on Germany after the Nazis ignored their ultimatum to withdraw from Poland. Of course the Scottish league simply couldn’t continue when the realisation of what war with Hitler’s Germany would mean. The Scottish League suspended the competition just 5 matches into the season. Players’ contracts were declared void and many full time professionals were forced to seek work outside football. Those at bigger clubs saw their wages slashed and some earned just £2 per week. Hastily organised ‘Emergency’ regional leagues were cobbled together with the clubs in the west joining the Western League and those in Tayside, Edinburgh and Aberdeen joining the Eastern League. It was thought that the shorter journeys to away fixtures would save petrol. These leagues played games and various Emergency Cup competitions with no real break for the whole war. It was felt that some recreation might be good for morale. These leagues were of course unofficial as no team could claim to be Scottish champions when facing just half of the country’s leading teams in their league competition.

One of the great controversies of the time was the amount of professional footballers who received offers of work in protected professions which excluded them from a call up to the armed forces. This lead to the legend of big strapping men hiding out in the shipyards being born and it was not without some substance. The erudite Bob Crampsey in his excellent history of the Scottish Football League stated…

‘Both Old Firm clubs would be severely criticised for their microscopic contribution of leading players to forces. Of the 22 players who wore the first team jerseys in September 1939 and those whose claim to such was unchallenged, only Willie Thornton and Dave Kinnear of Rangers and George Patterson and Willie Lyon of Celtic would end up in uniform.’

It remains a touchy subject among those who follow Rangers that so many of their leading players of the era were employed in ‘reserved occupations’ and thus avoided the call up to military service. As Crampsey points out though it is nonetheless a verifiable fact. That being said Rangers and Celtic players who did go to war such as Willie Lyon or Willie Thornton were undoubtedly brave men who would shake their heads at the petty point scoring of a minority of modern fans who have no comprehension of the horrors they witnessed on active service.

If the Western League had one great failing it was that Celtic didn’t approach it with any enthusiasm whatsoever. Players had to fit training and matches around their other occupations which in time of war made great demands on them. Men would wearily pull on their kit after a tough shift and the standard of football suffered. Good players were allowed to leave and younger, less experienced replacements brought in. On one occasion three of Celtic’s excellent Empire Exhibition cup winning side played against the Hoops. Good players such as Matt Busby were stationed in Scotland but Celtic ignored them and they took their services elsewhere. The club initially ran with a squad of just 14 players. Willie Maley was retired and Jimmy McStay brought in to mind the shop until normality returned.

Bob Crampsey also alludes to an age old issue in Scotland and that is the standard of refereeing. There were some hotly disputed games in the war years including one which ended in a virtual riot and the closure of Celtic Park for a month. Crampsey said…

‘Many of the Press were uneasy about what they considered to be scandalously partial refereeing. There had been disputed decisions in Rangers favour in both matches (Cup ties) and when Dumbarton were equally dissatisfied with the handling of a league match at Ibrox, Waverley, a normally phlegmatic Journalist was moved to reply to a plea from Mr R Lindsay, Chairman of Dumbarton, ‘’You are right in saying that Rangers don’t want favours from Referees but they certainly get them. I appeal to the SFA to let it be known that so far as whistlers are concerned all clubs are equal.’’

The war years saw guest players playing for many clubs in order to help them field a team. Hibs started a match at Tynecastle with players named in the programme as ‘Newman, Junior and Trialist’ playing up front. Some clubs didn’t know until near kick off time who could make it and who was still at work. On one occasion Rangers travelled to Pittodrie for a cup tie and had to call on a player spectating in the stand to fill their ranks. St Mirren were fined for ‘under the counter’ payments to Jimmy Caskie of Everton and Leslie McDowell of Manchester City who turned out for the Saints while stationed in Scotland. Five St Mirren Directors were suspended from the game indefinitely for paying the English players.

A game involving Celtic and Rangers at Ibrox in September 1941 ended in tumultuous scenes when Celtic’s supporters took umbrage at Refereeing decisions against their team. A full scale riot ensued as the home supporters gave as good as they got. Undoubtedly the trouble had been started by Celtic fans initially but the press again alluded to inexplicable Refereeing decisions. Sandy Anderson of the Glasgow Evening News wrote…

‘Then came one of those dreary penalty awards to Rangers and the next thirty minutes was hard to endure.’’

Celtic Park was closed for a month following the scenes at Ibrox and the team played their home matches at Shawfield. Jimmy McStay, try as he might, could not convince the Celtic Board to take wartime football seriously. The club floundered as Rangers swept all before them with the core of their pre-war side still available to them.

Those days built up much suspicion of officials among a generation of Celtic fans. That so called ‘paranoia’ lingered down the decades and incidents became magnified and viewed through the prism of a Scottish society which was in places still hostile to Celtic and all they thought the club represented. My old man could rhyme of incidents and the names of Referees he perceived as treating Celtic harshly. From MC Dale to RH Davidson, they were, in his book, unlikely to give Celtic a fair shake. While there is some substance to his belief that the playing field wasn’t level, the fact that Celtic underachieved on a huge level in those years added greatly to the frustration of the fans and perhaps magnified the poor decisions. 

The war ended in the summer of 1945 and a weary nation looked to football to entertain the masses and brighten the austere post war years. Crowds boomed and the Edinburgh derby would see 65,000 fill Easter Road. Pittodrie held 45,016 for a cup tie with Hearts and clubs all over the land saw crowds show up in record numbers. Celtic seemed unable to shake of their wartime slumber though and took years to build a side capable of challenging for the title. It wasn’t until 1954 that McGrory’s side captained by Jock Stein finally won the title; it was their first since 1938 and their last until 1966.

It was reported in the media this week that some Rangers fans would like the titles won in the unofficial war years to be added to their official honours. You wonder if they seriously believe this to be a credible claim given the fact they were Champions of a regional league in those years. To be national champions, a side must win a national league and unlike in World War One, such an entity simply didn’t exist between 1939-45. It may be that the fine Rangers side of the era would have won a national league but we’ll never know.

The argument that winning Regional titles in the sometimes farcical conditions of wartime football in Scotland could be construed as valid national championship wins is simply unsustainable. So too is any point scoring about players ‘hiding in the shipyards’ as both Celtic and Rangers had players in ‘reserved occupations.’ For some though, it’s all about sophistry. Winning the argument is more important than the truth. When it comes to football in Glasgow, the past casts a long shadow and old wrongs are not easily forgotten.

The game and society have moved on so much since those days even if a few who follow football remain stuck in the past.