Sunday, 26 February 2017

Full Circle

Full circle

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I post pictures of players, characters and incidents which illustrate the history of the remarkable football club we follow. Of course I also post many pictures of the magnificent supporters who give life to the club and have been its beating heart since 1888. A week or so back I posted a picture of a fresh faced, teenage girl holding a Celtic scarf above her head. The fashion and hair-cuts told me it was the 1970s and the picture illustrated so well that bond of affection so many of us have with Celtic. It was amazing for me to be contacted by a fellow Celt on Twitter called Joe Dolan who was in turn genuinely astonished that he had just seen a picture of a girl who was to become his wife. It was a real blast from the past for Joe and stirred memories of times long gone. We chatted about the girl in the picture and I soon learned the story of Jacky, an Easterhouse lass with a passion for Celtic.

Joe, in common with many Celtic supporters got the bug young. He first watched the side play in that wonderful year of 1967 and as he grew he was soon following the Celts everywhere. Those of you of a certain vintage will remember the ‘Football Special’ trains which would take fans up and down the country to away games. Joe and his friends made good use of them to back the bhoys and his lifelong love of the Hoops was soon established. At home games he’d frequent the old Celtic end and it was an education of sorts in those days for any lad being introduced to the rough comradeship of the terraces. It was a time when alcohol played a big part in terrace culture and few women would be found in what could be a tough and very masculine world.

However as 14 year old Joe attended just about every home game, he soon got to know the faces of the regulars around him at Celtic Park. One was a girl called Jacky who attended games as part of a big group of Celtic supporters from the sprawling Easterhouse scheme which perches on the eastern edge of Glasgow. In the 1970s Easterhouse was caricatured as a place of gangs, violence and despair. For those who didn’t frequent such places, it could sound a daunting area but for those who lived there, it was also the home of many decent, hard-working folk who did their best in difficult circumstances. Joe soon got to know Jacky and saw her not just at home games but also on their frequent trips on the ‘football specials’ to see Celtic away from home. It took him a while, but he finally asked her out at Cappielow in May 1974 in a game played a few days after Celtic had completed the Double by beating Dundee United in the cup final. There was no internet, no mobile phones in those days and most relationships began with someone having the courage to simply ask the other person out. Joe was glad he did.

Joe and Jackie were engaged in 1975, married in 1976 and saw the arrival of their daughter, Jenny in 1977. Their passion for Celtic never waned although running a home and keeping a wee one made money tighter and watching the Hoops was not the weekly routine it had been before. As Jenny grew and Joe got a steady job in the Fire Brigade things improved and Joe was soon introducing his daughter to all things Celtic. Jacky went to College and also took a job as a Steward at Celtic Park. As a passionate Celtic fan she loved mixing with the fans and occasionally getting to meet some of the player she had idolised. She would tell Joe of her work in the executive area of the main stand where she would find seats for players’ wives and chat to characters like Bertie Auld or Jimmy Johnstone.

Jacky was also a politically aware young woman who was heavily involved in trade union activism and was for some years the only female delegate on the local Trades Council. She was also one of the organisers of the Scottish Committee for peace in Ireland and made a presentation to Gerry Adams at a ‘Go for Peace’ meeting in Govan in 1995. She even shared a drink from a silver Quaich with the Sinn Fein President at that meeting an event she remembered fondly. Little known to many who attended that meeting though were the problems she was having with her health. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1993 and after extensive treatment seemed to be on the road to recovery. However as time went on and Celtic toiled during the season they played at Hampden as Paradise was rebuilt, she worried that she might not get back to her beloved Celtic Park. She fought as she had done all her life though and returned to her Stewarding duties in the new stadium, this time in charge of the temporary stand which sat behind the goal where the old Celtic end had been for over a century.

In videos of the time on YouTube she can occasionally be glimpsed among the fans behind that goal doing her job but also sharing their joys and despair about events on the field. She had stories to tell Joe about the Gallagher brothers of Oasis fame and their antics at a Rangers game. Or the time she had to stop Pierre Van Hooijdonk jumping into the crowd after a goal. She was with her people and was never happier but alas the illness which she had fought so courageously returned and her health deteriorated rapidly. Celtic were great to her and allowed her to carry on the work she loved doing at the stadium, they even had a steward appointed to look after her as her health waned.

Jacky Dolan died on a cold autumn day in 1996. She was just 38 years old.

Following her funeral hundreds of her friends, family and comrades from the Trade Union movement gathered at one of the lounges at Celtic Park to show their respect for this courageous and well respected woman. Celtic showed how they valued her by hosting the event without charge. The following weekend Celtic hosted Aberdeen and Joe recalls the U2 song ‘With or without you,’ which Jacky had requested be played at her funeral, belting out of the Celtic Park public address system in her honour. He admits that the tears flowed as the teams came out. It was fitting that Paolo Di Canio’s goal won the match that day. Jacky would have liked that.

The story had come full circle. The Easterhouse girl who used to stand on the terraces and cheer her team on was remembered fondly by those who knew her and those who loved her at the home of the club which meant so much to them all.

Today Jacky, like so many others who loved Celtic, is remembered on a brick at the stadium which is just under the banner of Jock Stein adorning the corner of the stand which bears his name. Her name is just above that of that other friend of the poor, Brother Walfrid. She’d like that. People like Joe and Jacky are the heart and soul of Celtic. Since the club’s inception at a meeting in St Mary’s in November 1887, it has been the place of many fine players to bring it honour and win it plaudits. However, it is the great mass of ordinary supporters down the years who literally built this club and who sustain it still. They infuse it with passion and raise it to levels it could never have attained without them. They truly are Celtic and Celtic is them.

I often write of the great players it has been my privilege to see playing for Celtic but today I honour an ordinary fan; a woman like so many others down the decades who made the best of what were often hard lives. For two or three hours on a Saturday we could all be transported away from our cares and worries as we watched the team we hold dear play football the Glasgow Celtic way.

God bless you Jacky and rest in peace.

Jacky Dolan (1957-1996)

                                                         This one's for you......

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Bitter Harvest

Celtic fans are crushed at Nottingham 1983

Bitter Harvest

On a bitterly cold November night in 1983 Celtic travelled to Nottingham to face Brian Clough’s excellent Forest side in the UEFA cup. Forest had been European Champions twice in the previous few seasons and there was no doubting the magnitude of the task facing David Hay’s side. The Celtic support was allocated 11,500 tickets of the 32,000 on sale but it was clear that many more had made the trip to England. Forest’s ground was archaic in places and the bulk of the Celtic support was crammed onto a terrace which had been sub divided into pens using railings. This was no doubt an anti-hooligan measure designed to keep visiting fans apart from the locals. The early 80s was a time when hooliganism was endemic and Policing had yet to evolve the strategies to deal with it. There was also a high fence at the front of this antiquated terrace to prevent access to the pitch. That being said the Celtic supporters packed into those pens were not there for trouble but to bring their usual colour and noise to the game.

As the game kicked off it was clear that the pens behind the goal were full to capacity and that all was not well. Some fans were climbing the floodlight to escape an increasingly uncomfortable situation. Simultaneously, the Police were dealing with the crowd still waiting to get into the ground in the narrow street behind the away terrace. In a chilling echo of what was to come six years later at Hillsborough they decided to ease congestion outside by opening one of the big exit gates. Fans, many without tickets, surged into the already crowded away end making an already uncomfortable situation dangerous. Fans spoke of being completely unable to move and packed in like sardines. Inevitably some were fainting. Relief of a sort came when ambulance service opened a gate at the corner of the terrace to treat a person who had fainted. However, such was the pressure from behind that hundreds of fans were forced out of the gate and onto the track and playing area.

Fans on the pitch at Forest after Crush

One Forest fan wrote later of Celtic fans ‘exploding out of the gate’ and even from the opposite end of the field knew that it wasn’t hooliganism but sheer weight of numbers which forced them onto the track. As fans lay on the grass, Celtic’s Doctor Fitzsimmons, physio Brian Scott and other staff raced across to help the overwhelmed ambulance staff. Dr Fitzsimmons gave mouth to mouth resuscitation to several fans and certainly saved lives that night. Other fans had crush injuries such as broken bones and breathing problems. The response of the Police was fairly ineffective but they soon realised that forcing fans back onto the packed terrace wasn’t an option and relocated them to other parts of the ground. The Referee had by this point stopped the game and players on both sides watched the unfolding drama no doubt hoping things would settle down and they could get on with the game. Few realised the danger of the situation at the time but the overcrowding on the terrace was plain to see. Eventually the injured were dealt with, the walking wounded led off for treatment and the supporters forced out of the gate resettled elsewhere. The game resumed and Celtic, after a shaky start, played very well and were unlucky to return to Glasgow with just a 0-0 draw to show for their efforts.

Many on the buses back north though were not talking of the football but of the near escapes they had that night. Nottingham Police force seemed unprepared for the numbers of Celtic supporters travelling to the game. According to some Celtic fans at the game they were also unfriendly and even aggressive at times. The decision to open the exit gate and allow a surge of fans into already packed terraces shows a complete lack of communication between officers inside and outside the ground. Only the timely opening of the pitch-side gate at the front of the terrace allowed for an easing of pressure which stopped a dangerous situation becoming a deadly one.

These lessons were not being heeded in British football in the 1980s and a few years after the near miss at Nottingham we saw Celtic’s league clinching game with Dundee in 1988 attended by a crowd later admitted to being over 72,000 in a ground with a stated capacity of 67,000. Only the lack of perimeter fences at Celtic Park allowed for the swift relocation of fans from the packed Celtic end to other areas. Just a year later we saw the tragedy of Hillsborough unfold and the despicable web of deceit which was woven to blame supporters and protect those chiefly culpable.

Those of us old enough to recall the old terraces at football stadiums will all have experienced dangerous situations. Leaving the ground after big games could be a daunting prospect and many wiser heads chose to wait until the crowd had dispersed. I can recall exiting Celtic Park after a Celtic v Rangers game as a teenager and my feet literally didn’t touch the ground for 10 or 20 metres as I was swept along such was the press of bodies around me.

Some complained initially about the atmosphere the new generation of all-seater stadiums but if that is the price of safety then so be it. Celtic have shown that safe standing areas can be built into modern stadiums to lift the atmosphere and Celtic Park is currently a noisy, vibrant arena in which to watch football. We can have the best of both worlds and be safe as we watch the sport we love as well as enjoying the unique atmosphere Celtic supporters generate.

Nottingham in 1983 was a warning which sadly fell on deaf ears. Our fellow supporters on Merseyside were to reap the bitter harvest of that inaction. It remains shocking that supporters were treated like cattle in those times and that it took such a tragedy to make the various authorities wake up to the dangers people were in at football matches.

There but for the grace of God could have been any of us in those days.

Celtic fans 1983

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Mars Bar game

The Mars Bar game

On a dreary January day in 1994 Celtic met Rangers in a league match which in many ways was a catalyst for real change at the club. The installation of seats in the old Jungle couldn’t disguise the fact that the stadium was in dire need of upgrading. Lou Macari’s team were battling away in the league without ever looking as if they could overhaul a stuttering Rangers and the support was growing increasingly rebellious. I stood in the Celtic end that day in relentless rain and watched Rangers go into a 2-0 lead in just 3 minutes. By half time it was 3-0 and some of the Celtic support was turning its ire on the board they held responsible for the decline in Celtic’s fortunes since the high point of the centenary season. It is said one fan threw a Mars Bar at a board member which apparently struck him on the head and led to some remembering the match as the ‘Mars Bar game.’ Celtic restored a little pride in the second half but still finished 4-2 losers. The writing was on the wall. Change was in the air and it would be led by a no nonsense little Scots-Canadian sporting glasses and a bunnet.

That game was 23 years ago and the relative fortunes of Celtic and Rangers have changed dramatically since then. Rangers sunk into a mire of administration and liquidation after years of overspending and the cheers of their glory years now seem hollow and worthless as the extent of their financial chicanery became clear. Celtic rebuilt, restructured and will this season, baring a miracle, clinch their 12th league title of the 21st century. The club is in rude health with strong financial figures, a squad containing valuable assets such as Dembele, Tierney, Rogic and Sinclair. The supporters are buying into the Rodgers Revolution and backing the side in big numbers. The Champions League Group stages was reached and most accepted the side were drawn in the toughest group a Celtic side had ever faced. Despite this the young Celtic side performed reasonably well and learned as the group progressed what it takes to compete at that level.

There has long been a cyclic effect in Scottish football where the two big clubs have periods of dominance before the other takes over for a while but we are in uncharted waters at the moment. Seldom in the history of Scottish football has Celtic looked to be in such a dominant position. They have a manager who wants to play the game in a modern, high paced, quintessentially Celtic way. They have a board prepared to back him and they have a support united behind the team. Our traditional rivals are currently in a shambolic state following the bizarre departure of their manager and it transpires that 60% of the promised £30m investment in the side has already been spent despite little sign of it. Celtic look set to continue their dominance in Scotland for some time yet.

Nothing lasts forever, not sporting success and certainly not sporting failure. The success of Hibs in last season’s Scottish Cup after 114 years of failure teaches us that much. Celtic’s rise from the mess of the early 1990s was a painful one and we had to wait four more years after the ‘Mars Bar Game’ to finally see the team become champions again. The foundations of that success and our current dominance were laid by Fergus McCann who stressed above all that a sound business model was essential. The club had to live within its means and when one looks at the financial disaster which overtook Rangers the wisdom of his approach was clear.

Celtic’s Achilles’ heel when in positions of dominance has historically been the selling of the club’s best players. We saw this in the latter Stein years when players of the calibre of Hay, Macari and Dalglish were allowed to leave and inadequate replacements recruited. We saw it when the team which defeated Barcelona in 2012 was asset stripped by the wealthier clubs of the EPL. Most fans understand the realities of operating in the low income world of Scottish football but nonetheless are seldom pleased to see our better players leave. Reaching the group stages of the Champions League is vital in this respect as it brings in the sort of money which gives Celtic a better chance of retaining their best players and building the squad further. It really isn’t exaggerating to say that Celtic’s most important games of the season come in the dog days of summer in such footballing outposts of Azerbaijan, Israel and Slovenia.

These are great days to be a Celtic fan and should be enjoyed by all of us who follow the club.  The team looks set to dominate in Scotland for some time to come. We have a top manager in place who manages the squad well and understands the club and supporters. Domestic honours look sure to continue and the prospect of more European adventures is exciting as this young team develops further. Rodgers is a very capable Boss and clearly setting high standards for the team in every game they play.

Of course, nothing lasts forever but Celtic is in a very good place at the moment and the building blocks are in place for the club to develop further. Anything is possible domestically and you have the feeling many long standing records will tumble in the next few years.

We have come a long way since the Mars Bars flew in 1994.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

In the heat of Lisbon

In the heat of Lisbon

Barry looked up from his phone an incredulous look on his face, ‘Flights just went from £80 to £270. Canny go they robbing basas, soon as Celtic head some where they shove the price up.’ Sniper looked at him, ‘What aboot flying intae somewhere like Lisbon and jumping a train?’ Barry typed away in silence for a few minutes, ‘We could do that, £120 each flying fae Edinburgh?’  The three friends looked at each other nodding, ‘I’m in,’ smiled Mick, ‘need tae back the team there’s a European final riding on this game.’ They agreed and three return tickets between Scotland and Lisbon were purchased. Barry then sorted out train tickets from Lisbon to Porto and all was set. For good or ill the three amigos would be in Porto backing their team against the stuffy and cynical Boavista.

They would have 7 or 8 hours in the Portuguese capital between arriving at the airport and boarding the train at Santa Apolonia for the long journey north to Porto. There was little debate about what they would do with this time; they would visit the shrine which is the Estadio Nacionale where Celtic won the European cup so memorably in 1967. Before the trip to Portugal the three friends watched Celtic defeat Kilmarnock 2-0 at home before heading to Tynecastle to watch a bruising game in which Hearts scored the winning goal with just seconds left. It was a bitter, damaging blow in the league campaign but there was no time to mope on such things for the supporters or the team. The club’s biggest game in decades was just days away and thousands of Celtic supporters were heading to Porto to back the players and see if they could make another piece of Celtic history.

Sniper, Mick and Barry jumped the early morning bus at Buchanan Street bus station to Edinburgh airport and could see from the smattering of Hooped shirts on the bus that others were going to Porto by the same roundabout route they were. As the bus glided along the M8 the friends discreetly opened a beer and chatted about the journey ahead. From somewhere near the back of the bus a group of young Celts began singing a song which made some on the bus smile and others exhale and look at their papers…

For those who are in love there’s a song that’s warm and tender,
For those who are oppressed in song you can protest,
so liberate your mind and give your soul expression,
open up your hearts and I’ll sing for you this song…

The flight to Lisbon was full of Celtic fans and there was a mood of quiet confidence among them but Barry knew how tough it would be. ‘This is gonnae be a mission. This mob are gonnae sit in and waste time and dive all over the place. They don’t need tae score but we dae.’ Sniper regarded Barry in that manner a teacher does a rather slow pupil, ‘The Buckie bottle’s always half empty wi you init? Celtic will do this mob, I don’t care how, I don’t care who scores but mark my words, we’ll be going tae Seville so less ay yer worries eh?’ Barry smiled, ‘Just being realistic big man, it’ll be tough.’ Sniper regarded him, ‘Listen you, I’ve got oan my lucky medal, we never get gubbed when I’m wearing it so relax things are under control.’ Sniper’s ‘lucky medal’ was a football medal he won at Primary School which for him held special significance as the man who presented the winning side with their medals was the inimitable Tommy Burns. ‘Oh well that’s all right then,’ smiled Barry, ‘Hope you told Martin and the team yer wearing it.’

The plane banked to the left and began its descent through the clouds and into a sparkling bright Portuguese morning. The sun glinted on the ocean and on the landward side the urban sprawl of Lisbon was laid out below them like a bright 3D map. Sniper nodded towards Barry who sat eyes closed on the seat beside him. Mick nodded and smiled, knowing his friend hated take-off and landing on planes more than anything. ‘I asked the pilot if these things crash often,’ Sniper said to Barry, who mumbled, ‘What did he say?’  Sniper grinned, ‘He said, naw, just the once.’ Barry resisted a smile and muttered, ‘Shut it ya big plamph.’ The plane wheels screeched a little as the plane bumped down onto Portuguese soil.

As the plane doors opened the heat enveloped them like a warm caress. They walked down the steep steps to the waiting bus, a feeling of excitement growing within them. ‘Yaaas,’ grinned Barry, ‘Here we go again, we’re on the road again!’ Sniper shook his head and said to Mick, ‘Gets aw his patter fae song lyrics this yin. He started aw that cringe-worthy stuff up the Garage wan night. He said tae a lassie; ‘If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?’   Mick sand Barry laughed as Sniper continued, ‘She said to him, if I said my boyfriend was a kick boxer would ye fuck off.’  They descended into raucous laughter as Sniper continued his favourite hobby of giving Barry a hard time. ‘Just as well you’re a pal,’ Barry grinned, ‘or I’d be setting aboot you.’ Sniper smiled, ‘You couldny set aboot a pudding supper ya walloper. Yer sister battered ye at school.’ It continued in this vein until the three amigos exited the airport and jumped a Taxi for the Estadio Nacional.

The short uniformed man who looked like a cross between a Park Ranger and a cop waived an arm at them as they gazed through the fence at their field of dreams. ‘Fechado hoje! Fechado!’ Barry waited until the man was closer before showing him the badge on his yellow Celtic away top, ‘Any chance of a quick look around, Pal? We’ve come a long way.’ The man rolled his head as if he’d encountered many Celtic fans in such circumstances and said in reasonable English, ’ We closed today, come back tomorrow.’ Mick explained they were heading north to see Celtic play Boavista and couldn’t return tomorrow, The man rubbed the stubble on his chin before Sniper held a 20 Euro note out in front of him, ‘Ten minutes mate, come on eh?’ The man took the money, skilfully making it look as if he was shaking Sniper’s hand and said with a sigh, ‘Ok, dez minotos, then go.’ He then added as an after-thought, ‘and tonight you beat those sons of bitches too uh? We Benfica supporters don’t like Porto or Boavista.’ The three friends nodded as the man, it seemed that inter-city rivalry was the same the world over.

He led them a few metres to a gate set into a wall. He unlocked it and led them inside. ‘Ten minutes, rapazes eh?’ The three friends didn’t hear him as they were already looking around the stadium they felt they knew well from a hundred old photos and film of Celtic’s day of triumph there. Directly across the emerald turf of the pitch from where they stood they could see the podium where Billy McNeil had held the gleaming European Cup above his head. ‘This place is amazing,’ said Mick, smiling ‘amazing but an odd wee stadium tae hold a European final in?’  They walked to the centre circle and Sniper rotated slowly taking it all in. ‘It was right here the Celts did it. Amazing!’  The three friends basked in the Portuguese sun as they walked to the spot where Gemmell had smashed in the equaliser and then to where Chalmers guided that Celtic side to immortality.

The walked to the opposite end of the field and down the stairway into the cool, shade of the tunnel where the players had lined up before that game in May 1967. A gate stopped them going far but they were thrilled to be there where the Lions had stood waiting for their shot at glory. ‘This is where wee Bertie started that sing song,’ said Barry. Sniper grinned, ‘Aye, imagine the Tallies standing there looking cool and then the wee man belting out the grand old team.’ Mick looked at them, ‘Well, we won’t be here again so what do ye say?’  His too friends looked at him, ‘Why not,’ said Barry smiling. They began to sing, their voices echoing in the tunnel and drifting across the emerald field of dreams…

‘Sure it’s a grand old team to play for
Sure it’s a grand old team to see
And if you know the history
It’s enough to make your hearts go
Oh, oh ,oh, oh!
We don’t care what the animals say
What the hell do we care?
For we only know that there’s going to be a show
And the Glasgow Celtic will be there!’

It was almost a spiritual experience for the three Glasgow boys who had heard of what occurred here long before they were born. In a sense this place was a pilgrimage site for Celtic fans. It was here their team reached the pinnacle of their history. It was here a bunch of pale Scottish lads demonstrated to the so called elite of Europe what could be done with skill, determination and a willingness to play football as it should be played.

They headed back up the stairway and into the glare of the Portuguese sun as the Celtic side had done so long ago. The voice of the Portuguese security man broke the spell. It was time to head north to Porto and see if the modern Celts could make their own little piece of history.