Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Celtic Way

I had an interesting debate on Twitter recently about the ongoing glorification of the military in the UK and the place of the Poppy appeal in popular culture. It’s clear that Whitehall has been playing the Patriotism card in recent years with the introduction of Armed Forces Day Parades in most parts of the country. Such jingoistic flag waving is seems to me is partly designed to undermine those who question why the UK is involved in military action in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place. It is worrying when the Military is hero worshiped in this manner as it makes it far easier to sweep any abuses under the carpet. 300 Iraqis are currently awaiting compensation for abuse at the hands of the UK’s forces and every conflict from Burma to Aden, from Kenya to Ireland has seen its share of excesses by the British military. For those of an Irish nationalist persuasion, there seems little to celebrate as the British Army has been guilty of some dreadful actions throughout Irish history.

For those of us in the Celtic family of Irish extraction, there is also the issue of the scurrilous and ignorant flaunting of the symbols of ‘Britishness’ by the Loyalist fringe in Scotland who cling to outdated exclusivist ideas of what nationality is about. I had an example of this mentality myself in Glasgow recently; I was standing in Glasgow City Centre on a humid June day as the Armed Forces Day parade passed by. I hadn’t planned to attend the event, I just happened to be going that way. A middle aged chap dressed in the top of a deceased football club mumbled to me… ‘Great tae see the boys marching through Glasgow eh?’ Before I could reply he shouted at the passing soldiers, ‘Heroes every wan o’ ye!’ His obese companion, clearly the worst for drink shouted ‘No Surrender’ at the passing troops as if they were off to defend the walls of Derry rather than patrol Helmand Province. A glance around me demonstrated that there were more than a few followers of the dead club cheering the Parade. Some wore club scarves and most had clearly been drinking judging by the slurred speech and occasional bursts of ‘Rule Britannia.’ What was going on, I asked myself? Was Armed Forces day being turned into some sort of Loyalist gathering? Surely that wasn’t the purpose the politicians had in mind when they decided to promote this worrying glorification of the UK’s Armed Forces?  To be fair, most people watching the Soldiers march pass looked with disdain on the loud and rather coarse behaviour of the Deadco’s followers. They no longer represented mainstream Scottish opinion. They were the leftovers from a time, long gone, when the petty privileges of institutional bigotry made them feel they were in some way special. They actually weren’t as those with real power knew that the working class was far less dangerous and easier to control when divided by mindless sectarianism. As a character from Oliver Stone’s excellent movie ‘Gangs of New York’ said, ‘That’s the thing about the poor, you can always hire one half to kill the other half.’  James Connolly saw these false divisions as being fostered to keep the workers divided and to stop them changing the social structures which impoverished them all. He described the petty privilege given to one section of the community in the North of Ireland as ‘Tuppence against tuppence Ha’penny’ as both  communities lived in poor social conditions.

I waited patiently for the parade to pass and had to endure another chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’ from men who saw no irony in singing songs in praise of Britain’s imperial past while wearing the shirts of a club which robbed the ‘crown’ of millions in unpaid tax. Their ideas of being ‘British’ were locked into outmoded and unthinking paradigms based on unquestioning and uncritical loyalty to the ‘crown’ and its forces. This is matched by their hostility to any who don’t think as they do. It is sobering to think that the UK Muslim Community currently endure the sort of suspicion and low key hostility the Irish once put up with. This is the mindset which tells Scots of Irish descent that ‘The Famine is over’ and suggests that they go home. Of course such moronic racism ignores the inconvenient truth of the forced plantation of Ulster, mostly by Scots who wouldn’t dream of ‘going home’ to Scotland.

My Twitter conversation turned to the Poppy debate too with those of Irish Republican views stating clearly that they would never wear this symbol of the forces which brought so much suffering to their land. I couldn’t disagree with their viewpoint but merely asked that the right of each individual to choose whether or not to buy a poppy be respected. The sort of ‘Poppy Fascism’ which sees not buying one as somehow disloyal is balanced by those who see the purchase of one as somehow supporting the policy of the Government in getting involved in the sort of wreckless bloodbath we saw in Iraq.  It is of course neither of these extremes. It is simply an individual choosing to support a charity which helps former military personnel of all generations, creeds and colours. There should be no pressure either way. I respect and understand the Irish Republican viewpoint on this but equally respect those who purchase a poppy as exercising their freedom to choose. We can disagree without being disagreeable as my fair minded Twitter friends demonstrated.

As the soldiers marched off and the last strains of ‘Rule Britannia’ echoed of the tall buildings of the City Centre, I thought of how identity in the Islands which make up Britain and Ireland is so complex and multi layered. I’m a Scot of Irish descent and don’t feel particularly British at all. I’ll be voting ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum so my country can control its own destiny and not have its young people sent off to fight pointless wars for oil or power. I also want Scotland to be an inclusive country where all who want to be Scottish are welcome. This won’t be decided by the colour of their skin, their creed or politics. It will be decided by their acceptance of the values which we all want to see in our country; fairness, respect, tolerance of diversity and caring for those most vulnerable in our society.  I see so much of these values among many Celtic fans who try to live up to the club’s founding principles of charity and inclusion. As individuals and as a club we can be an even greater force for good in Scotland. From Glasgow to Thailand, from Kenya to Haitti our fans have dug deep to help others and offer a positive example of the Celtic way. We all have a role to play in how we act and in teaching the new generation of Celtic supporters the Celtic way.  So many of you do fine work for charity and are a positive force in Scottish society. That was what Walfrid wanted after all and you honour him by continuing his work.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

More than a club…

Barry ran as fast as he could his sports bag swinging rhythmically in his right hand.  He had slept in on today of all days and it was touch and go whether he’d make the train. He swung right into Gordon Street, taxis tooting him as he sped across the road in a hurry and bolted into the cavernous space of Central Station. Sweat was dripping from him in the warm May air as the exertion and perhaps last night’s beer took its effect. Two jakies begging outside the Station watched him flash past and one called after him, ‘Aye ye better run ya Dick!’ Barry had no time to query what the random drunk was talking about; he had to make the London train. As he neared platform 1, he could see the doors being slammed shut by a short, stout railway employee. He was stopped short by another, ‘Haud oan Pal, need tae see yer ticket!’ Barry dropped his bag and fished his ticket out of his jeans pocket, ‘Hurry mate, I need tae be oan that train.’ As soon as the ticket inspector nodded him through he sprinted for the nearest carriage and jumping is, slammed the door behind him. A wave of relief swept over him, ‘Thank fuck fur that!’ he mumbled to himself. The train jolted into life and began to snake its way slowly out of Glasgow. He had made it.

He slung his holdall over his shoulder and began a slow walk through the creaking, swaying carriages to find Mick and Sniper. If Mick hadn’t phoned to ask where he was this morning he would still be sleeping. He knew they were on the train somewhere and wanted to reassure them that he had made it. The first two carriages were full of business people clicking away on their laptops or reading newspapers but as he slid the door to enter the third carriage he knew he’d found the right place. There were more than a few sets of Hoops among the passengers in this carriage and Barry could hear a voice he knew well as it drifted along the compartment towards him….

‘You are my Larsson, my Henrik Larsson,

You make me happy when skies are grey’

It was his friend Sniper, and he interrupted his song when he saw Barry walking towards him with a smile on his face, ‘Bazza ya big Dafty! I though you wurny making it mate!’ Barry smiled at him, ‘Somebody needs to look after you on this trip ya big plonker. Wiz that you singing there or wiz somebody skinnin’ a cat?’ Sniper patted the seat beside him, ‘Park yer arse there ya big fud and less ay yer shite patter or your cheenies will be rattled before we reach Carlisle’ Barry sat beside his friend of many years pleased to be in his company again. They had been through Primary and Secondary school together and had even worked for a while in the same sports shop before an incident involving Sniper and a fairly attractive but rather vacuous girl in the stock room had led to them both being sacked. A manager had caught them in a state of near undress on top of a pile of Adidas Samba trainers and had no option but to dismiss them both on the spot. Sniper had smiled at a bemused Barry on the way out of the store, ‘The baw was rolling along the goal line Mate, I had tae put it in. I mean ye canny say naw tae yer Nat King, can ye?’ Sniper was always using football analogies but that was one of his more memorable ones. ‘Where’s Mick?’ Barry enquired. ‘Toilet,’ replied Sniper. ‘Said he’s got the Garry Glitters but I think he’s choking the bishop.’ Barry laughed, ‘Yer a fuckin mad man Sniper.’  As if on cue Mick Devine appeared, ‘Ye made it then Barry boy!’ Barry smiled at his friend with genuine affection, ‘Hell yeh, you’ll need a sane, sober person on this trip. I mean Sniper’s coming wi us and folk will think we’re going tae Lourdes.’ Mick laughed, ‘We’d Need to throw that dick intae the fountain at Lourdes tae cure his bammy ways.’ Even Sniper laughed at that one. As Mick sat down, Sniper produced three cans of beer from a bag under the table and the pals talked about the trip ahead. Glasgow to London was to be followed by the Eurostar from London to Paris. Then it was Paris to Madrid and finally Madrid to Seville. When Celtic beat Boavista in that torturous semi-final, the three amigos were determined to make the final but as the flights were booked up so quickly there was little option but to use the trains. It would take almost two days but as Barry said, the journey would be a big part of the experience.

Six hours later the train arrived at Victoria Station in the centre of London. Sniper, Barry and Mick, bags in hand, headed for the underground as they were due on the Eurostar for Paris in 3 hours. The London underground was crammed as usual and Sniper decided to pass the time attempting to communicate with Londoners who appeared to think he was from Norway or some such place. He smiled at one smart looking chap in a suit and asked, ‘Aw right ma man, whit’s the crack wi that Tony Blair and yon Saddam clown eh?  Boot in the baws the two of them need eh?’ The man   looked at Sniper, bemused and mildly horrified before moving away from from him in silence. Mick smiled as Sniper, ‘You ever tried speaking English ya knob?’ ‘Only making friendly conversation’ replied sniper,  No way I’m fighting for Bush by the way.’ Mick smiled at him ‘ You fight for Bush up the dancing every week ya numpty!’ The three friends laughed as the train arrived at St Pancreas.  

The Eurostar sat like a futuristic spaceship waiting for them. They soon found their seats and as they shared an over-priced beer, raised the issue which had been quietly on all of their minds. Barry spoke first, ‘We’ve only got wan ticket for the game, how do we decide who gets it?’ Sniper produced a pack of cards. ‘We cut the cards in Seville, highest card goes tae the gem?’ Mick added, ‘Seems fair. I hear tickets are going for a grand so we won’t be able to afford any aff the touts.’ Sniper nodded, ‘We’ll do it in Seville oan the day of the game.’  Mick and Barry agreed. ‘We’ve got a few hours tae kill in Paris before the Madrid train, wit dae yeez want tae see?’ Sniper surprised them by suggesting Notre Dame Cathedral. ‘They might no let you oot Quasimodo!’ quipped Barry. ‘You saying I’m ugly ya humped backed Pollok Midget!’ said Sniper in mock shock. ‘I widnae say ugly,’ replied Barry ‘but ye dae have a face like a bag of rusty spanners.’ Sniper was having none of it, ‘Listen ya fuckin Ooompa-Loompa, I get mer burds in a week than you get in a year.’ Barry laughed, ‘It’s quality that counts Sniper, some of your burds look like guys!’  Sniper shook his head, ‘Jealousy is a terrible thing!’ Somewhere further down the train a guitar could be heard. No one was singing but the tune was familiar. Mick smiled, ‘That the grand Old Team I hear?’ Sniper nodded, ‘Aye, we Tims are fucking everywhere so we ur!’

It took precisely 2 hours and 15 minutes for the train to whiz under the channel and reach Paris. As the friends stepped out of the Gothic Gare du Nord station it was approaching 3pm. They decided that there was not enough time to visit the Cathedral and settled for some food and a few beers on the Avenue Napoleon III. As they sat at a pavement Café in the late afternoon sun watching the fashionable Parisians pass by Mick said quietly to his friends, ‘This place is another planet so it is.’ Barry agreed, ‘Makes the Gorbals look like Kabul.’ Sniper smiled at a statuesque blond woman who passed their table, ‘Aw right Doll?  Did I no nip you up the Garage last year?’  She smiled back at him and kept walking, ‘If ah could speak the lingo, I’d get some lovin in this toon aw right!’  Geez peace Sniper, I think you pay half yer burds,’ replied Mick with a smile.

It was dark as the Paris to Madrid train crawled out of the city of lights before speeding south across the flat French countryside towards the Pyranees. The three friends were settled into their seats for the 9 hour journey. They were joined by a few other Celtic fans making the pilgrimage to Seville. One produced a guitar and the songs were soon filling the air. Part of the pleasure of following Celtic abroad was this comradeship. If you were a Celt you were a friend. Barry took a turn a singing and the carriage was quiet as the guitar gently joined him in a familiar old song….

‘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;

Let the people sing their stories and their songs

The music of their native lands

Their lullabies, their battle cries, their songs of hope and joy

So join us hand in hand, all across this ancient land

Throughout the tests of time, it was music that kept our spirits free

Those songs of yours and of mine...’


The songs went on into the wee small hours before one by one they succumbed to sleep. Dawn brought them to Madrid and they were a step closer to their destination. As they left the train they could feel the heat of a Spanish morning, even the smells were different .  In the centre of Atocha Station was what appeared to be a small rainforest. ‘Palm trees in the railway station?’ said Barry, ‘Ye won’t see that at Nitshill Station.’ Sniper yawned, ‘Naw, few cannabis plants mibey but nay palm trees.’ Mick hurried them along as the train to Seville was leaving in just 45 minutes. He was getting excited that they were now in Spain and said in a slightly elated voice, ‘We canny miss this yin guys, I can smell Seville noo!’ Sniper quipped, ‘That’ll be Barry’s cheesy underpants yer smellin Mick, no changed then since we left school.  Barry shook his head, ‘Shut it ya plamf!’ Mick hustled them through the station as Sniper asked, ‘Wit exactly is a plamf anyway? You made that word up didn’t ye?’

The packed Madrid to Seville high speed train seemed to whizz through the scorched Spanish countryside. An elderly Priest with a long grey beard and a black beret perched on his head squeezed in beside the three pale Glasgow boys who seemed to be the only Celtic fans in the carriage. ‘Aw right Fadder’ Sniper began, his friendly unshaven face smiling at the old Priest, ‘hoat yin the day eh?  He offered a can of San Miguel to the old man who surprisingly accepted it with a smile. To their further surprise the Priest also spoke excellent English. He introduced himself as Abbé Pierre and askedYou are travelling to football, no?’ He nodded towards Barry’s Celtic shirt. Barry spent the next ten minutes telling the old Priest the story of Celtic’s foundation and all about Brother Walfrid and his dream to feed the poor and give them some pride. The Priest listened, his blue eyes bright and smiling at Barry’s enthusiasm. ‘The Marists were a great teaching order in Spain,’ the Priest went on, ‘and in my country too. I am French. As is the Marist founder Marcellin Champagnat They listened as the Priest told them about his experiences as a young man in occupied France during world war 2. The three Scottish lads listened and learned about the good side as well as the bad side of human nature. ‘War brings out the best in some and the worst in others,’ the old man said.

Sniper then chatted excitedly about the game against Porto in Seville, ‘We’ve only got wan ticket Fadder but we widny miss this yin fur the world.’ The old Priest was surprised that they’d travel so far with just one ticket between three of them. ‘You must love your club very much.’ He commented. ‘It’s not just the Club Father,’ Mick responded, ‘it’s the people, the fans, we’re a real community.’ The old man nodded and smiled. They two and a half hour journey passed quickly as they discussed everything from football to politics and history. The train slowed down as it approached Seville railway station. Sniper, having polished of more than a few cans of San Miguel was in the mood to start a sing song. Mick wondered what the Spanish folk on the train and the old Priest made of the big Glaswegian as he began to sing in a not unpleasant voice…

‘Walk with me Oh my Lord

Through the darkest night and brightest day

Be with me Oh my Lord

Hold my hand and guide me on my way’

Barry glanced at Mick and smiled as Sniper, big, uncouth Sniper, had the reduced the whole carriage to a respectful silence as he sang a hymn learned at a Primary school a thousand miles away. The old Priest smiled and led a gentle applause as Sniper finished. ‘You know,’ he began in his gentle French accent, ‘John Paul says that to sing is to pray twice.’ The train stopped and they glanced out the window. Seville! They were here at last. They said their goodbyes to the elderly Priest with smiles and handshakes before exiting the station and joining the green and white army which swarmed all over the lovely, sun drenched city of Seville. Mick smiled as they heard a chant of ‘Over and over’ echo down the street! ‘We’re here boys, we made it!’  They deposited their bags in lockers at the station and headed for the toilets where locals were surprised to see them wash and shave at the sinks. They then headed into the town in a state of excitement to join in the friendly invasion.

The central square in Seville was full of Celtic fans and there was a carnival mood among them. Mick, Sniper and Barry sang and drank the day away and met friends old and new at every corner. ‘This if fuckin magic,’ Sniper smiled, ‘I love supporting the Hoops!’ No one disagreed and as darkness fell and the songs and laughter echoed around the old town. The local Police smiled at the fans, shook a thousand hands and posed for pictures with Celtic scarves draped over their shoulders. There would be no need to draw their batons with these fans. No tear gas tonight, just tears of joy as the green clad hordes sang, drank and laughed deep into the night. 80,000 Ambassadors of Glasgow Celtic were in town and they only had one thing in mind and that was to enjoy themselves. Barry, Sniper and Mick got gloriously drunk and ended the night drinking Spanish Brandy with a group of Celtic fans from Belfast. The last thing Sniper could remember was singing, ‘I’ll tell me Ma,’ and dancing with a flame haired Irish girl who could drink like a man.


Dawn came on the day of the game and it found the three Amigos waking up on a patch of grass in a small play park situated on a side street near the cathedral. Sniper stretched and yawned, his head pounding. He wandered to a nearby fountain and splashed some water on his face. He then poked Mick and Barry with his foot, ‘Here, you two bawbags better wake up afore the clenny come and sweep ye up wi the rest ay the trash.’ A dehydrated Barry opened his eyes, ‘Oh my mouth feels like the bottom of a bird’s cage!’ Sniper, quick as ever, replied, ‘Am no surprised, it had a cockatoo in it last night!’ His raucous laughter echoed around the small park where other Celtic fans were coming round after a long night on the drink. ‘Still think yer a comedian ya big fud eh? Yer patter's shite’ retorted Barry with a smile. The friends headed for a local café where long cool drinks of water and some local wine soon had them feeling better. Barry raised the tricky question of the ticket. ‘When will we cut the cards?’ Sniper suggested that they check out the Fanzone and cut the cards there. That way the lucky person going to the game would know exactly where to meet the other two after the game. It was agreed.

Later in the day they followed a large group of fans heading for Mass in the Cathedral. They decided to tag along. Only Mick went to church with any regularity but they were each, in their own way, respectful of people’s faith. Seville Cathedral stood like a huge gothic castle and streams of Celtic fans poured inside for the service. Some removed ridiculous sombreros before squeezing into the packed pews. Barry, Mick and Sniper found a spot fairly near the front and sat down. ‘Looks like the Celtic Rally in here,’ Mick whispered. The huge church was full of Celtic fans although a few blue specks here and there suggested a few Porto fans were also asking God to help their team. Five Priests appeared and a bell tinkled to begin the Mass. Mick nudged Barry, ‘check out the Priest on the right.’ It was the old Priest from the train. The Mass progressed in a solemn and dignified way and as the three friends joined the line for communion they were glad to note that they were in the line heading for the old French Priest. As Barry approached the old man said with just the hint of a smile, ‘Corps du Christ’ and placed the host on his tongue. Before Barry could turn away the old Priest said quietly in his heavily accented English, ‘Wait behind after Mass, please.’ Barry, a little puzzled, nodded and headed back to his seat to say a quiet prayer for Celtic and also for those less fortunate than he was in the world.

When Mass was over Barry told his mystified friends to wait behind. They watched as the huge number of Celtic fans departed the Church to join the gathering excitement of match day. After a few minutes the Church was quiet and Barry saw the old Priest wander towards him with a younger Spanish Priest. ‘Good day to you,’ he smiled at the three friends. ‘Howzit gone Fadder,’ replied Sniper in his inimitable way. Abbé Pierre introduced his fellow Priest as Father Ignatious before turning and talking to him in Spanish. He pointed once or twice at Sniper and smiled as the Spanish Priest nodded and returned his smiled. The three Glasgow Bhoys watched and wondered what was going on. After a few seconds Father Ignatious reached into his back pocket and produced a white envelope. ‘Thees eez for you’ he said in reasonable English. He handed the envelop to Barry before smiling and walking away. Barry looked mystified. Abbé Pierre smiled too, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ He said cryptically before turning and leaving the three confused Scots. ‘God be with you Walfrid’s boys,’ he added as he entered a door to the left of the altar and was lost to their sight.  Sniper was utterly confused, ‘did he just bung you Barry?’ Barry said nothing but carefully opened the envelope. Inside were three tickets to the FC Porto v Glasgow Celtic UEFA Cup Final. ‘Fuck me!’ said Sniper before remembering he was in a church and looking up to the large crucifix above the altar and adding, ‘Sorry, Jesus!’


Later, Barry, Sniper and Mick headed for the Stadium with tens of thousands of other Celtic fans. They now had four tickets for the match and were feeling an elation they had never felt before. They made another Celtic fan’s day by giving him the spare ticket free of charge. The man, who had travelled from San Francisco to see the game was almost in tears and hugged them like long lost brothers. ‘That’s why I love Celtic,’ he said emotionally, ‘Best fuckin fans in the world!’ Whatever the match itself held, nothing would make the three amigos ever forget their magical journey to Seville. Following Celtic was never easy, as Fergus McCann had once said, but it was always worthwhile. Tonight, they joined thousands in a football stadium to cheer on a team. Hundreds of thousands of other Celtic fans around the world were cheering them on too. But this more than a club, this was a way of life, a community. As they entered the stadium and saw the huge Celtic support spread out before them, Barry placed his arms over his friends shoulders, ‘Look at that boys! What a support.’ Mick nodded, ‘Makes ye proud tae be a Tim.’ Sniper said quietly, as if to himself, ‘I always have been and always will be proud to be a Tim.’ He meant it too.


Monday, 24 June 2013

The Times they are a Changing...

A lot has changed in the North of Ireland since the 1984 ‘riot’ at a friendly match between Celtic and Cliftonville in Belfast.  The Summer of 1984 was a troubled time as political violence continued unabated in the six counties. Desmond White, the Celtic Chairman, watched the RUC wade into both sets of fans with batons flailing and plastic bullets firing and commented…’It was Gdansk all over again.’ His reference to the Polish City, which was the scene of serious Police brutality as the Polish ship yard workers led the struggle to free their country from the repressive grip of Soviet dominated communism, was pointed and some argue accurate. White promised that Celtic wouldn’t be returning to Northern Ireland again after witnessing the brutal actions of the RUC. That hot August night back in 1984 was the first time plastic bullets had been fired inside a football Stadium in these islands. Fans of both Cliftonville and Celtic pointed to Loyalists outside the ground throwing missiles inside and the brutal over reaction of the RUC as the chief cause of the trouble. What isn’t in doubt is that both sets of fans contained young men who were not prepared to take police aggression meekly. The ensuing violence was widely reported throughout the UK with the Scottish Press going for the ‘Hooligans’ angle and barely mentioning the actions of the RUC. Desmond White used the Celtic View to give a more balanced picture of events.

This July, for the first time, Celtic will meet Cliftonville  in a competitive fixture. Just how far society has changed in the 29 years since the events of 1984 will soon become clear. Whether the game goes ahead at the rebuilt but small Solitude Stadium or is switched to a larger venue remains to be seen but interest in the tie will be massive. The RUC has been renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland and has worked hard to recruit a more balanced force which better reflects the population it serves. The peace which followed the Good Friday Agreement has largely held though sectarian tensions can still erupt, often around the marching season issues. Celtic’s visit to Belfast in Mid-July comes in the middle of the Orange marching season and will involve a major security operation to ensure things go smoothly.  I am hopeful that the Police, the fans of both clubs and the wider Belfast community will see the game as an opportunity to show the world that things have moved on since 1984. I look forward to reading about the football and not any off field antics.

Having visited Belfast, I realise that a degree of local knowledge about the geography of the City is required to keep visiting Hoops fans safe. There are still areas which see the Hoops as a symbol all they hate and Bhoys and Ghirls visiting the City had best avoid these parts of town. However, I met a lot of Belfast folk on my last trip and most of them are as helpful and friendly as you’ll find anywhere.  Football wise, Cliftonville have played 24 Ties in Europe winning just 3 and conceding over 60 goals. Celtic can’t afford to take them lightly but the first leg in Glasgow should be seen as an opportunity to put the Tie beyond Cliftonville and take much of the tension out of the second leg. A club like Celtic should expect to beat Cliftonville but events when we played Dundalk in 1979 (3-2, 0-0) demonstrate that no team is going to lie down just because we are Celtic. In fact teams often raise their game when the big clubs come to town. The last 10 minutes in Dundalk were fraught as Celtic realised that one goal for the hosts would put them out. Such a scenario must be avoided this time around. I think Lennon’s team will do a professional job and have too much for Cliftonville at Celtic Park.

Whatever happens, we all know the importance of Champions League football to Celtic and the Bhoys must do a professional job. I hope we see lots of Cliftonville fans at Celtic Park adding to the spectacle. I hope too Celtic fans add to the atmosphere in the second leg in Belfast. Times have changed for the better in the North of Ireland and few would want to return to the bad old days of the troubles. Let’s talk about the football and build Celtic’s reputation as having fans you can take anywhere without any problems.  This is an exciting Tie for Cliftonville and an absolutely vital one for Celtic. Let’s enjoy it for all the right reasons.

I hope we see a trouble free tie which demonstrates that the culture of football and wider society has changed since Desmond White looked on in horror as the plastic bullets flew in 1984.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Rat in the Skull…
I wrote some time ago about Ron Hutchinson’s stark and uncompromising play ‘Rat in the Skull’. It is set in a 1980s Police Station where an older RUC officer brutally interrogates a young IRA volunteer. It encapsulates the tragedy of Irish history: The two characters demonstrate an utter contempt for each other without realizing that they are both, in their own ways, martyrs to the same sad history.

Anyone who logs into a Celtic website or indeed a website of the club formerly known as Rangers (IL) could be forgiven for assuming that they detect a similar, if less tragic, symbiotic relationship between the two clubs. So much of their histories are seemingly intertwined, so many of their triumphs are matched by the simultaneous depression at their rivals. Indeed, the late Gore Vidal might have had some of the followers of these two clubs in mind when he said…’It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail.’’ A fair percentage of both clubs followers spend as much time reading and commenting on the events at their rivals as they do on their own club’s fortunes. The death of Rangers has given Celtic fans a once in a lifetime opportunity to make sure the Newco followers realise that they lost the long war. No matter what happens now Celtic have an unbroken history while their great rivals don’t as they were liquidated in debt and disgrace. Any feeble and unconvincing attempts by sections of the media to claim liquidation wasn’t the end only serves to motivate fans of many Scottish clubs to continue to prove that the oldco did indeed die. In Scots Law there is no difference between the Company and the Club, they are one and the same. Imagine if you will that the calamity which befell Rangers FC last year had happened to Celtic. Do you suppose we’d get away with claiming the ‘holding company’ died and not the club? Not a chance. This unrelenting scrutiny is perhaps symptomatic of the 2 horse race that Scottish Football had become. It is now 28 years since a team outside the Big Two have won the SPL title. (Aberdeen in 1985) No one under 35 will remember Fergie’s excellent team.

My message in this blog is simple. Let’s stop measuring Celtic against any other club. Let’s talk about our club and its wonderful history and only mention other clubs in relation to how they affect Celtic. By all means remind the footballing public that we won't swallow the tosh that the oldco didn't die because it surely did. The media can spin it all they want but we know the truth. The death of Rangers is an opportunity to reset the compass and plot a course which doesn’t involve any mention of Ibrox or any unhealthy obsession with how the newco is doing. Let’s forget them, let them shout and sing about hollow victories over fourth rate virtually amateur Scottish teams. Let them rot in the wilderness for a few years to temper their arrogance. The simple truth is we don’t need them. Everything they were grew out of opposition and hatred of everything that Celtic stand for. They were just another medium sized Scottish Club until they figured out that they could grow richer and fatter on the back of prejudice and hatred. Their sectarian signing policy alone broke every moral code in sport as the SFA and sporting media looked the other way and said nothing.  In the end Rangers bloated into the grotesque and arrogant beast which so spectacularly imploded under the weight of their own hubris in the spring of 2012. They measured every success they have ever achieved against our failure. They festered, hated and despaired when Celtic were on top. One can even trace their eventual collapse back to a sunny afternoon in Lisbon when the Lions became the greatest team in Europe. Their ‘they put down a fiver, we’ll put down a tenner’ arrogance was born out of trying to emulate Stein’s greatest achievement. It ate away at their soul that the immigrants, the poor relations had risen to greatness where they had failed so often. Tens of millions were spent trying to conquer Europe and they didn’t even come close. All they achieved was vast debt and eventual liquidation.
Just remember this simple fact: If Rangers never existed, Celtic would be pretty much the same club they are today. Without Celtic, Rangers would have been nothing because all they were grew out of opposition to Celtic. Every yardstick they used to measure their success is a comparison to us.  That is deeply unhealthy and we must never sink to that level. We are better than that, we are better than the so called ‘Peepo’ who ironically used to sing ‘Celtic know all about their troubles.’ In their hearts they know however that Celtic’s darkest days were never as dark as the dustbin of history they were consigned to.  
As Brian Dempsey said one memorable night outside Celtic Park when Fergus McCann took control of the club… ‘The game is over, the Rebels have won.’  How right he was.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Somewhere between madness and love…

In just 10 days the draw will be made for the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League first and second qualifying rounds at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. The world’s greatest club competition will reach its climax 11 months later on 24th May 2014 when the final returns to Lisbon, the city where Celtic’s dream became a reality in 1967. It is astonishing to think that Celtic will be playing crucial qualifying games before the Glasgow Fair holiday!  The Club needs to quickly deal with the ins and outs of the transfer market and have a settled side which is ready for the demands of the qualifiers. Make no mistake about it, Celtic need Champions League football for a variety of reasons. It offers financial stability to the club in troubled times and enabled Celtic to drop season ticket prices substantially this season. It raises the profile of the club and its fans around the world as the ECL is televised in over 200 countries. I recall getting up at 5am in Melbourne, Australia in 2006 to watch Celtic defeat Benfica 3-0. I was roaring at the TV as the sun rose in Australia while 10,500 miles away Paradise rocked on a dark, chilly Glasgow night. The ECL also makes potential players regard Celtic as a club they would like to join despite the shortcomings of the SPL. There is also no doubt that the challenge and glamour of the ECL offers the support a chance to be part of the truly remarkable atmosphere Celtic Park can generate on those wonderful European evenings beneath the lights. The support no longer have games against the Deadco to look forward to and it would be churlish to deny that the Champions League was an important part of what made 2012-13 such a memorable season.

This time last year we faced some tricky games against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs and the team rose to the occasion and got us to the promised- land. It will be equally tough to make it to the group stages this time around and the club will need us to back the team 100%. Against Helsinki 52,849 Celtic fans showed up to offer the team the noisy and inspiring support they needed to overcome a stubborn and physical team who actually led 1-0 after 47 minutes of the home tie. Against Helsingborgs 51,566 fans came along to help push Celtic over the finishing line and into the group stages of the Champions League. Both attendances were by far the highest in the competition on those nights.  This level of support is vital and demonstrated how important reaching the group stages is to the club and fans alike. Celtic need to ensure that the fans have at least one qualifier on the season book this year and that tickets prices are in the £10-£20 range for all the qualifiers. The team needs the support just as the support needs the Champions League to sustain them through the long Scottish winter.

Few clubs are as rooted in their community as Celtic. The fans live and breathe Celtic and are the most important factor in their successes over the past 125 years. David Pleat, former Spurs Manager, said while commentating on a European tie at Liverpool a few years back… ‘Where else but Liverpool and Celtic do the crowd play such an important role in driving the team on to results they didn’t look capable of?’ We’ve heard from Maldini, Messi, Beckenbauer and a host of other famous players about the amazing atmosphere Celtic Park generates so it is up to us all to back the team in the best traditions of the Celtic support and ensure that we have our invitation to the greatest club tournament on earth. For me the most important games last season were not the Barcelona ties or even the cup final. They were those qualifiers which ensured we had a ticket to the party which gave us so many happy memories last season. I’ll never forget beating Barcelona on that marvelous night in November. Nor shall I forget Samaras heading a late winner in Moscow to seal our first away win in the Group Stages. Such memories linger long in the mind but they have their genesis on those hard pitches in the summer when we scrap it out to reach the Group stages. The tone for season 2013-14 will set in the dog days of summer and we all have a part to play to ensure that the Club we love is among the elite of European Club Football. That is where we belong and that is where we aim to be.

We, the Celtic support, know how important we are to the team and we won’t fail them. We’re the crucial twelfth man who energizes the team so that it is capable of results such as the astonishing victory against Barca. Make no mistake, no one gave us a chance in hell against Messi and co but despite this, the record books show that we defeated them. Such a result would have been impossible without the backing of that incredible support. The team will need us again this July so make sure you’re there to help them make history again.

On November 7th 2012 Celtic Football Club celebrated its 125th year with an astounding result. Tito Villanova the coach of Barcelona said after that match…

“The stadium was spectacular, I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds, but I have never seen anything like it. This was their 125th birthday and I wish them many more years.”

One reporter said of the Celtic supporters and their bond with the team on that memorable evening……

Somewhere between madness and love, this fanaticism did for Barcelona on a night when the Celtic team and their disciples were indivisible. Money can’t buy you that.’

Even the Barcelona players who have tasted the atmosphere of Champions League and World Cup Finals were blown away.  Consider the following…

“No words to describe the atmosphere at Celtic Park,” wrote Gerard Piqué

“The stadium is a marvel – the fans, the people, how they support their team, It’s an example for every team.”  Xavi

Most of us accept that the gulf in finance and technical ability make a repeat of Lisbon 67 a very tall order for a club like Celtic but we still aim to make our presence felt among the elite. We aim to make Celtic Park a place which visiting teams are in awe of as our Bhoys joust with the giants of world football. We still have our dreams and our songs to sing and we sing them loudest on those European nights.