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.  

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The X Factor

The X Factor

The plush surroundings of the Kerrydale Suite of Celtic Park aren’t so far removed from areas of Glasgow where deprivation and lack of opportunity linger on. It was fitting then that the club founded to aid the poorest of the poor in Victorian Glasgow hosted one of those charity events which are such a regular feature in the Celtic family. They travelled from far and wide to celebrate the latest ‘Tommy Burns Supper,’ a tradition started by the Herriot Watt and Edinburgh Celtic Supporters Club more than two decades ago. There remains a very deep and tangible affection for Tommy and hundreds of supporters came to raise funds for his Skin cancer charity and the Celtic Charity Foundation. They also came to remember the man who seemed to have an effect on so many who worked with him or knew him.

The evening began with a speech from STV Political pundit and Celtic fan, Bernard Ponsonby who spoke with his usual authority and eloquence of how his family’s Irish roots and growing up in the Garngad made it virtually impossible that he would follow any other team than Celtic. Being born into a Celtic supporting family is something many of us take for granted but isn’t the only route to Celtic Park. He recounted that the actor, David Hayman, came to Celtic later in life after being impressed by both the club and the supporters. ‘This is a political club,’ Bernard said, ‘political with a small P. The people who follow this club won’t just pass on the other side. They’ll help those who need help. It is a club with core values.’

Among the first footballing guests to speak about Tommy Burns were Tosh McKinley, Tom Boyd, Gordon Strachan and Brendan Rodgers. Tosh was asked about the cross he swung in for the winning goal in the 1995 Cup final and said, ‘Makes a change, I usually get asked about sticking the head on Henrik Larsson.’  Tosh knew what that cup win meant to Burns and the wider Celtic support and was rightly proud that a Celtic supporting lad like him played a part in it. He recounted that him time at Celtic was sometimes less than plain sailing. After one match an elderly fan spoke to him outside Celtic Park saying, ‘Tosh, I’d compare you to Roberto Carlos…compared to him you’re shite!’  The sartorially elegant full back was then asked where he bought his sharp suits and replied, ‘It’s amazing what you can get with a crisis loan.’

Gordon Strachan was in top form remembering that epic 2008 championship win and how it was tinged with huge sadness as his great friend and colleague had passed before Celtic won that title. He recalled getting petrol from a garage on the London Road and being asked in the spring of 2008 by the owner who he thought would win the league. Strachan said…

‘I could see by the look of him he was a Rangers fan. I said Celtic will win it to which the man replied ‘naw ye won’t, Rangers will.’ I said ‘well what the f*ck are you asking for?’ In May 2008 as Celtic’s team bus drove back to Celtic Park from Tannadice with the trophy we passed the garage and I said, ‘driver, stop here.’ I went in and asked for the boss and the lassie said ‘He’s not working tonight can I take a message?’ I said, ‘Aye, tell him when he comes in Gordon Strachan said he can go f*ck himself!’

Speaking of his great friend and assistant Manager, Tommy Burns, Strachan recalled one match where the advice he got from his colleague was less than helpful…

‘We were playing Manchester United in the Champions League and they had Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez running at us. We were hanging on a bit at the end and the crowd were getting on my back a bit demanding I change it. All I had was Ben Hutchison on the bench. I saw Tommy standing at the opposite end of the dugout watching the team hang on. He comes walking up to me as the crowd think ‘Aye, Tommy will tell him what to do to sort it.’ Well he stops in front of me, puts his hand over his mouth so no one can see what he’s saying and I’m waiting for the tactical master plan, and he said, ‘By the way the blind section and giving you some abuse!’ I looked along and saw a blind guy on his feet waving his arms shouting ‘Strachan yer f*cking useless!’ He canny even see the game and he’s giving me stick! Even his guide dog had its paw over its eyes!’

Brendan Rodgers spoke eloquently and with that media savvy he has. He wouldn’t be drawn on any upcoming transfer business and said when asked is anything happening, ‘Not at the moment.’  His thoughts on Tommy were formed firstly as a young fan from Ireland who followed the Hoops avidly. He was thrilled to work as a young coach under Tommy at Reading and found the man to be as decent as he had heard. When asked to describe Tommy in a few words he replied, ‘He had the X-Factor. He was the top man.’ When asked simply. ‘Celtic or Liverpool?’ he replied, ‘I’ve been a Celtic fan all my life so no doubting who I choose. It’s an honour to manage the club I support.’ When Pat Bonner was asked  to sum up Tommy in a few words, he said that Tommy was ‘the personification of Celtic.’ Strachan said simply, ‘He was my best friend.’  Billy Stark spoke of the ‘unbreakable bond’ that the Centenary team had and that Tommy was at the centre of that.

The evening passed with many such anecdotes and now and then the assembled supporters would burst into those chants of ‘Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns,’ which used to echo around the stadium. Thousands of pounds were raised for charity and Tommy would have liked that. He would also be delighted that his people still cherish his memory and still remember the flame haired Calton boy who dreamed of playing for the team he loved and made that dream a reality.

There was laughter and tears in the Kerrydale Suite last night but pride also that such a fine man had contributed to Celtic’s history in such a meaningful way. His old friend Peter Grant said movingly, ‘I still talk to him every day.’ For Celtic fans who saw him play or were lucky enough to speak to him, they knew he was special.

Whenever I go to see Celtic play I think of men like Tommy and Jock and Jimmy and know that somehow their spirit is still around the place. To paraphrase Tommy…

‘They’re there and they’re always there.’ 

Monday, 16 January 2017



I try hard to keep the articles I write to matters concerning the club I hold dear. I have no great interest in any other club and find in Celtic’s history all the inspiration I need to write. There have been triumphs, disasters, brilliance and occasional calamity but always it is a story which fascinates me. I tend not to mention Rangers much in my writings for as you all know other Celtic writers follow their fortunes with a mixture of caustic wit and wry humour. Today however I’ll break my unwritten rule of not mentioning the club from Ibrox however you perceive them. Some things need to be said…

Some of our Italian friends, sick of corruption and the self-serving elite who seem to run the country to benefit only themselves, demonstrated on the streets a few years ago. Their cry was a simple one and summed up in one word: Basta! This word means simply ‘enough!’ It is a cry of frustration and anger and a sign that many Italians are heartily sick of corruption in their country.

I raise this word not in the context of financial corruption but in the context of the deep moral corruption which affects a minority in our society. I saw a video online of beer bloated faces in Berlin yesterday grinning as they chanted about child abuse. Let’s not beat about the bush, this reprehensible and debased behaviour is not carried out by social progressives out to save children from abuse it is merely a vehicle they use to further their hatred of Celtic FC and their followers. In the past few years we have witnessed the sight of grown men chanting things such as ‘Who shagged all the Boys’ and ‘The Bears are having a Party, the Tims are shagging weans.’ At the Hogmanay Derby match the Celtic supporters chants of ‘Celtic, Celtic’ were echoed back by thousands of voices chanting ‘Paedos, Paedos.’ What the hell is wrong with so many people that they cannot see how demeaning it is to the victims of abuse it is to use a 50 year old case to point score against a rival football team? Statistics would suggest that at least some of the victims of this type of crime will be standing beside them in the stands as they chant these songs. This isn’t banter, this isn’t a laugh, this is people descending from the gutter into the sewer and every decent supporter in the country should condemn it for the guttersnipe trash it is.

The knee jerk reaction from the brain donors who engage in this filth is to engage in ‘whataboutery’ or rabbit on about offensive Rebel songs or other such items which rip their knitting. Get it clear in your minds, two wrongs never make a right. Others are so steeped in their hate that they no longer care how they are perceived and such people may be beyond reason. I actually had one commenting on my Blogs that I was a ‘Vile sectarian bigot’ for daring to comment on the bigoted songbook aired at a SPFL game. The person involved called himself ‘Captain Black’ which anyone with a PC could soon ascertain was one of the code-words used by a Loyalist Paramilitary group in the troubles to claim ‘responsibility’ for various brutal crimes. That is the level of debate some wish to have: Our side good – your side bad. It’s pathetic and useless debating such people. One cannot reason with unreasonable people.

Too many people see the world in simplistic black and white terms. Child abuse affects all groups, all cultures, all denominations and is one of the scourges of the modern world. It is not and should never be seen as something to be chanted about at a sporting fixture, nor is answering it in kind worth demeaning yourself with. I once heard someone say, ‘For every Torbet there will be a Kincora.’ There is hard truth in that as that is the nature of this insidious problem. It is in all our interests and in the interests of our children to work together to stamp it out.

The idea that a criticism of some in a group is not criticism of all is lost on some. There are many Rangers fans who despise the bigotry and the child abuse fixation of some of their fellow fans, just as there is a broad spectrum of people following Celtic who have different views of a variety of issues. Nor is this battle between different clubs as every club will have its share of fools and knaves. This is about all the decent people who love football and care about their clubs saying, ‘Enough!’ It’s about Hearts fans educating the idiot dressed as Jimmy Saville and wearing a Celtic shirt. It’s about Aberdeen fans telling the fool with the offensive banner that he represents no one but himself. It’s about the silent majority of decent Rangers fans finally growing a pair and claiming back their club from the Neanderthal element who repeatedly drag it through the shit. It’s about Celtic supporters self-policing and being continually self-critical about banners, songs and effigies. It is very easy to become that which we claim to despise.

Football is a passionate, tribal game which raises emotions to levels we don’t normally see in our sedate lives. But some things are too much; some things go too far and attempting to use child abuse to point score is simply beyond the pale. Some idiots may be too lost in their hatred to care but we owe it to the rising generation of young Scots who love football to say: Basta!  That’s enough.

I hope we do and I hope we walk that road together as fans of the greatest sport there is and as decent human beings.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Invincibles

The Invincibles

As World War One raged on in the summer of 1915, Scottish League football continued to be played officially as it had been suggested that it would be good for morale. The Scottish Cup and International matches had been suspended for the duration of the war but the title was still there to be won. Players wages were capped and most were doing war work of some kind as well as playing football.

Celtic entered season 1915-16 as League Champions having won the title the previous season with a bit to spare. They started well losing just two matches in first half of the season. One of these loses was to a very good Hearts side which had beaten Rangers 4-0 at Ibrox the previous week. That 2-0 defeat at Tynecastle in November 1915 was the last defeat Celtic suffered in a competitive match for 17 months. They racked up an astonishing 62 matches undefeated with 49 victories and 13 draws. They did not lose a single competitive game in the entire calendar year of 1916. Indeed they actually played two games in one day in April 1916 to avoid the need for a midweek game which would have meant players potentially missing shifts in factories and docks deemed vital to the war effort. They defeated Raith Rovers 6-0 at Celtic Park before heading for Motherwell where they defeated the Steelmen 3-1. 

The title was clinched in April 1916 amid limited rejoicing as the war dragged on in Europe and the 1916 Rising in Ireland caused yet more concern to many who followed Celtic. To get an idea of the worries people had then consider the fact that the Herald newspaper gave the week's casualty figures as 92 officers and 1,568 men killed in action. The list of those injured and maimed would be even longer. It seems strange to us a century later that football could continue as the nation endured such losses but continue it did. Celtic, Scotland’s leading Irish club of the time played matches as Dublin burned in Easter Week. Indeed a contemporary newspaper carrying a report on Celtic’s 4-1 victory over Third Lanark also carried a report on the arrest of the ‘Traitor, Roger Casement’ who was arrested while trying to land thousands of German Rifles for the Irish Citizens Army. The Report also quoted Casement as saying…

"Let Irish men and boys stay in Ireland. Their duty is clear before God and before man. We, as a people, have no quarrel with the German people."

These were clearly tumultuous times and loyalties were stretched and tested. People were living through one of those great upheavals which history periodically produces. For the Celtic team on the football field though this was a golden era. With players like Patsy Gallagher leading the attack and Shaw, McNair and Dodds defending so well the club was thriving. Jimmy ‘Napoleon’ McMenemy pulled the strings ably assisted by the lightning fast Andy McAtee. They also had Peter Johnstone, a tough and reliable big player from the mining communities of Fife who played in almost any position and was adored by the fans. He was unafraid of the gruff and intimidating Boss, Willie Maley, and would argue his case if he thought he was right. Maley, who undoubtedly admired Johnstone, was distraught when the big man was killed on the Western Front a year later having insisted on ‘doing his bit.’  

For Celtic 1916 turned into 1917 and the side continued their winning streak until, finally, they lost to Kilmarnock at Celtic Park in April 1917. Their incredible run of 62 competitive games without defeat still stands as a record in British football. Indeed it is a record in top class European football although Real Madrid currently sitting on a 40 match unbeaten run after Karim Benzema’s injury time equaliser against Seville this week. It seems incredible to think that Zidane’s Madrid have won more trophies in his tenure than matches lost! (Champions League, European Super Cup and the World Club Championship)

Of course, football and indeed the world, has changed immeasurably since Patsy Gallagher, Peter Johnstone and Andy McAtee drove Celtic on to victory 100 years ago. But those men deserve the respect of Celtic fans today. They did their very best for the club and brought Celtic glory and honour. They won four consecutive championships during World War One and have an honoured place in Celtic history.

Today we see an attacking young Celtic side being developed by a Manager of considerable guile and experience. The hard lessons of European football are being learned and while Rodgers side faced an immensely difficult Group in the Champions League, they emerged from it with some credit given the disparity in income between the Hoops and the sides they faced. Domestically however Celtic remains imperious. In 24 domestic matches in the SPFL and League Cup they have won 23 and drawn just 1. This raises the tantalising possibility of a domestic season without defeat. Even the Lisbon Lions couldn’t manage that distinction but could Rodgers’ side do it?

I’ve never been one to tempt fate but you’d have to say that it is possible. Football is of course a strange game and an error, a bad bounce of the ball or dubious refereeing decision can cost a team a game but you get the impression Rodgers sends his team out with high expectations in every single match they play. He is driven man with high standards and he wants the best for Celtic every week. If anyone can create a new team of ‘Invincibles’ then it is him.  If Celtic return from their Winter break in Dubai refreshed and ready to go again then they’ll take some stopping. They continued to win at home in the first half of the season despite playing in a dozen high pressure European ties which their opponents were spared. They are now free to concentrate on domestic matters. If they hit the ground running and continue winning then each passing week will bring a once in a lifetime achievement closer.

It’s a long shot, a really big ask but you never know. We Celts always have our dreams and our songs to sing.