Monday, 30 September 2013

Where does it come from?


Where does it come from?

In the excellent movie ‘Mississippi Burning’ hardened FBI veteran and Southerner Gene Hackman is trying to explain the violent racism in the south to fellow agent and Northerner, William Defoe. Defoe asks him ‘Where does it come from, all of this hatred?’ Hackman recounts his boyhood in Mississippi when his father, a farmer, poisoned a Negro neighbour’s new mule. When young Hackman asked his father why he had done it, his father replied, ‘Son, if you can’t be better than a nigger who can you be better than?’ Hackman then relates a truth prevalent in many societies with this sort of hatred, ‘He was an old man so full of hate that he didn’t realise that being poor was what was killing him!’  The film, based on the real life murder of three civil rights activists in the early sixties, is a powerful testimony to the malevolent power of racist hatred. It also demonstrates the degree of courage it takes to stand up to such deep rooted and institutionalised evil. Let us go forward 20 years from those grim events to an incident in my home city in the early 1980s…

The following is a true story: It was a raw winter’s day back in the early 80s when a few of us left Celtic Park to get some heat in a nearby pub on Duke Street in Glasgow’s east end. Usually we stayed to the very end of the game but on this occasion with the game well won we headed early. Those of you who remember the Gallowgate of those days will recall the General Wolfe pub and Terry’s tattoo shop which we passed on our way up to our destination. We turned right and headed up to Millerston Street. Near the top of the street was an old derelict church and a Garage. As the small group of us reached the garage the trap was sprung. A crowd of 40 or 50 young men armed with iron bars, sticks, whiskey glasses and at least two knives swarmed all over us. It was almost 30 years ago but I can still remember the drunken visceral hatred on their faces. ‘Kill the Fenian Bastards!’ it began in sadly typical manner. The four or five of us had little chance to escape the inevitable frenzy of hatred which overwhelmed us. I remember trying to drag some ignorant people off my brother before a blow from behind put the lights out for me. I awoke in the Royal infirmary where I learned that my friends and family were thankfully not seriously injured. Bruising and stitches heal but such events leave a scar which doesn’t. By sheer chance a police van had turned into Millerston Street as the attack was on-going and had scattered the cowards who need 5-1 odds and weapons in their fights. The fact that Police Van had turned into Millerston Street at that precise time probably saved a life.

Some months later I was travelling into town on the bus with a few mates and one of the guys who formed part of the mob got on with his girlfriend. He sat on the top deck, front seat and was looking mighty nervous as I glared at him. My mates asked me what was going on and I replied in a voice loud enough for the guy in the front seat to hear, ‘That’s one of the scummy bastards who attacked us last winter.’ My mates were all for hurting him, girlfriend there or not, I told them not to on her account. One of my pals said, ‘It’s your call but I’d rip his balls off.’ As we left the bus I said to the quivering wreck sitting with his lady, ‘I’ll be seeing you again one day pal and you should be thankful I’m not a liberty taking bastard like you.’ I have yet to meet him again since that day.

Those memories rose to the surface today after many years. I guess it was the discussion on events at Ibrox stadium where members of the United Kingdom’s armed forced cavorted and danced on the field as supporters of the new club sang all the old bigoted songs. Some even joined in. It wasn’t armed forces day or remembrance week when these graceless scenes occurred it was just another Saturday in Scotland’s largest city. Some of ‘our’ soldiers posed with scarves emblazoned with sectarian messages and surely senior officers will look into this? This reminded me of a time outside the old Pollok shopping centre when I took my old uncle for some messages. Some soldiers had set up a recruiting stall outside and were letting kids peer through the sights of some thankfully unloaded rifles. As we passed a young man asked one of the soldiers what his tattoo was. It showed King Billy on a white horse and had the numbers ‘1690’ below it. The soldier quickly rolled down his sleeves and ignored the question. The young guy shook his head, ‘I can see how fair you’re going to be when ye get tae Belfast ya  Bastard,’ he said and moved on.

I’ve written in the past about the unhealthy glorification of the military going on in modern Britain but few of us with Irish connections need to be told why it’s wrong. To see serving military personnel dancing around to racist drivel like ‘The Famine Song’  or the ‘Billy Boys’ is simply ludicrous. Yes, many of them may have no idea of the content of those songs but those in Scottish regiments certainly do. The days when this sort of thing was acceptable are long gone. The ‘We Are the People’ brigade should be made quite aware that we are all ‘the people’ now and we will not accept the naked bigotry our grandfathers’ did. The Croppies are not lying down any more.

Now, I’m not for a moment contrasting the prejudice faced by Scots of Irish descent to the depressing and awful experience of African Americans. To do so would be quite wrong as the sheer scale and viciousness of historical and current prejudice faced by African Americans defies description. What I am saying is that prejudice and hatred is by its nature similar the world over and only the degree of acceptance any given society allows it differs. Clearly modern Glasgow is not 1960s Mississippi and the vast majority of Scots are fair and decent people. There remains, however an underclass which cling to outmoded ideas of Scottish identity which is as out of date as horse drawn carriages.

I recall attending an anti-racist seminar when the speaker spoke of what she called the ‘5 Steps of racism.’ These were, according to her…

(1)            Joke about the target group

(2)            Avoid the target group

(3)            Discriminate against the target group

(4)            Physically assault members of the target group

(5)            Kill members of the target group

Few among the population can be said to be capable of all 5 of these steps although the deaths of several Celtic fans both here and in the North of Ireland suggests a tiny minority are. The disappearance of the industries and communities which offered a safe haven for exclusion and bigotry has left some in our society lost. The ‘Social Dominance Theory’ which sought to provide certain groups in society with the moral and intellectual justification for bigotry suggests the use of ‘Legitimising myths’ to uphold their belief system. Such myths hold that the group being discriminated against bring it on themselves by being lazy, disloyal, dirty, work shy, etc. For some, these myths are more important than the truth. Scotland is changing fast and becoming more diverse. It isn’t the white, Presbyterian land it once was and that seems hard to take for some. But our people of all hues need to accept the hard fact that bigotry festers in poverty and ignorance and only by creating a more equal society where all feel a sense of belonging and live with dignity, can the monster be slain forever. Have we changed since that day in Millerston Street? Most of us have but some refuse to move on.

So where does it come from all of this hatred?  As one of the characters in Mississippi Burning says so well…

Hatred isn't something you're born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what's said in the Bible... Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it... you breathe it. You marry it.’

That is still the sad truth for a sizable number of our fellow Scots. They learn at their father’s knee that others are different and are to be hated. Until that ends we will still have this poison in our country.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Talented Mr Lennox
As I stood one damp Glasgow day looking at the statue of Jimmy Johnstone outside Celtic Park, I couldn’t help but notice his best friend from the days of glory coming out the stadium front entrance. The frame may have aged and the hair greyed but there was no mistaking this Celtic great.  I shook his hand and said simply, ‘Thanks for all you did for Celtic.’ He smiled, said thanks and then looked at the statue and said, ‘That was my wee mate there, still miss him.’ I nodded and replied, ‘We all do Bobby, we all do.’

Bobby Lenox and Jimmy Johnstone were inseparable in their heyday spearheading the attack in Celtic’s finest ever side. While Jinky attracted the eye for his incredible dribbling ability and his huge capacity to take the rough play of defenders and come back for more, Lennox was absolutely lethal. He possessed a turn of speed which must rank him among the fastest players in Celtic history. It is worth remembering that while the great Henrik Larsson hit 242 goals for Celtic in a glittering spell at the club, Lennox scored 273. Indeed, this would probably have been in excess of 300 if it wasn’t for the decisions of linesmen who wrongly flagged him offside on many occasions when his sheer speed had fooled them.  The classic example of this was his ‘goal’ against Liverpool which was wrongly disallowed costing Celtic a place in the Cup Winners Cup Final. Only the legendary Jimmy McGrory scored more goals for Celtic than Bobby Lennox.
His total medal haul of 1 European cup, 11 league Championships, 8 Scottish Cups and 5 League Cups is simply astonishing. He scored for Scotland at Wembley in their 3-2 victory over the then world champions and hit the winning goal against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. All of that suggests a player of the highest calibre and Boby Lennox was certainly that. The great Real Madrid player Alfredo Di Steffano said of him….

‘The Scotsman who gave me the most trouble was Bobby Lennox of Celtic. My Testimonial at the Bernabeu was against Celtic as they were Champions of Europe in 1967 and although I remember the Bernabeu rising to Jimmy Johnstone, I admired Lennox greatly.’

Manchester United Legend and no mean judge of a player, Bobby Charlton, came up against Lennox for England and in friendly matches and was duly impressed. He said…

‘If I had Lennox in my team, I could have played forever. He was one of the best strikers I’ve ever seen.’

Those of you too young to have seen him play at least you have video footage to give you a glimpse of the talented Mr Lennox. The Saltcoats boy who ran along the beaches of his native Ayrshire to build up his stamina and incredible speed gave the fans some fantastic memories. His hat-trick at Ibrox as Celtic demolished Rangers 4-0 in 1966 will live long in the memory of those who saw it. His goal in the 1969 Cup final epitomised his speed and lethal finishing. Then there was his contribution to the epic victory in Lisbon in 1967. Yet Bobby was a modest man, quick to point out that team mates such as Murdoch and Auld often set up his goals. He would often say he played with terrific players without mentioning the fact that he was a terrific player himself.  It’s easy to forget how physical the game was in the 1960s and 70s. Players like Lennox took an incredible amount of punishment from ruthless defenders. I recall him out pacing the Rangers defence at Ibrox in 1976 only to be scythed down by John Grieg and left with a broken leg. The Referee awarded a penalty and then bizarrely changed his mind and gave a dubious offside decision. Grieg wasn't even booked as Lennox left on a stretcher. The punishment players like Bobby and Jinky took would surprise the modern fan. It took a particularly violent foul to have a player even booked in those days and many defenders hacked away until the Ref finally took their name. For many of them though, Bobby was simply too fast to catch.

Bobby Lennox arrived at Celtic Park from Ardeer Recreation FC in the dark days of 1961. Celtic were struggling badly and Manager Jimmy McGrory added the pacy teenager to a reserve team which contained many of the men who would go on conquer Europe a few years later. All of that seemed far away as Celtic struggled to match the powerful Rangers, Hearts and Dundee teams of the era but of course all of that was to change with the arrival of Jock Stein. He moulded the so called ‘Kelly Kids’ into a powerful attacking force which went on to become the greatest club side in Scottish history. It is testimony to Lennox that he was there throughout Stein’s reign and won an astonishing 11 league championships with the club. Stein used his pace on the flanks to great effect and brought out the best in a talented and supremely fit footballer.
His last game for Celtic was the cup final of 1980. If you watch footage of the winning Celtic goal that day in all its scrappy gloriousness, you will see the face of the ever enthusiastic Bobby Lennox race to congratulate George McCluskey and Danny McGrain. Almost 20 years since he first signed for Celtic, this lifelong Celt still took great joy in the club’s successes. The man who recalled coming up to Glasgow as a wee boy with his dad to watch Celtic play Arsenal in the Coronation Cup went on to be one of the mainstays in the club’s most successful era.

As I watched him walking towards his car that day outside Celtic Park, some of the younger Celtic fans walked past him without a second glance not recognising this Celtic great. The older generation though don’t forget their heroes. From the quick smile to the ‘Alright Bobby’ or handshake, they let this Celtic great know that they’ll never forget his achievements. Yes, he played with some great players but he was among the best of them. He was also a decent and fair man who was hardly ever booked in a long and glorious career despite taking a lot of stick.

We won’t forget your wee mate but trust me Bobby we won’t forget your contribution to Celtic either.  

Bobby Lennox. Celtic Great.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Team I loved so well…

The Team I loved so well…

I was listening to a bit of Paddy Reilly after Celtic’s surprise exit from the league cup. It’s surprising how music can sometimes define your mood. As the big Irishman sang ‘The Town I loved so well,’ a song about Derry in the troubles, I reflected on a bad night for Celtic. As if on cue big Paddy reminded me that we can’t rewind the past and play the game again and that we should take defeat on the chin and move on. He sang…

‘For what’s done is done and what’s won is won

and what’s lost is lost and gone forever,

I can only pray for a bright, brand new day

for the town I loved so well.’

In the aftermath Celtic's unexpected defeat to a plucky but rather fortunate Morton side this week, there was considerable soul searching, not to say anger among the supporters. For three matches running (AC Milan, St Johnstone and Morton) our misfiring forwards have cost us, or almost cost us the game. The Morton match saw us have 66% ball possession 27 corners and 25 attempts on goal and we still couldn't score. That is worrying when you consider we fielded a relatively strong side. Neil Lennon isn't an unintelligent man. There is no doubt he sees the striking issue as one which needs to be addressed. His post-match analysis that 'It just wasn't our night' is only partially true. Yes, now and then any team can miss chances and lose games they dominated but there is a worrying pattern of this developing which needs to be addressed. It didn't go un-noticed that Gary Hooper was on target for Norwich on the same evening. If we are to sell such players then we must replace them with players of equal stature or the quality of the team will go down. We all know the flaws in the team at the moment but even accepting that they should still be capable of beating Morton. If there was a bright spot on a rather dark evening for Celtic it lies in the fact that we dominated the game and created many opportunities only to spurn them all. That wasn’t always the case on such occasions.

I recall well the cup exit to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 1999. On that occasion Celtic were woeful and barely created a chance. We also had Mark Viduka and coach, Eric Black literally fighting in the dressing room at half time. It took half the team to separate the two of them and Viduka refused to play in the second half as the Highlanders deservedly won. Morton, for all their pluck were fortunate but we wish them well and move on. It would be churlish to mention the fact that their penalty was yet another in the ‘debatable’ category. Their defensive performance and sheer doggedness meant they deserved a result. Yes, they rode their luck as teams must do when faced with superior opposition but I seem to recall Celtic putting in a ‘backs to the wall’ performance against Barcelona a year ago and emerge victorious. That's football. It's the most unpredictable ball sport on Earth. A game where a bad bounce, poor refereeing decision, poor finishing or inspired defending can change the outcome of a game.

When you buy into following Celtic, you accept the ups and downs. What you should never accept players giving less than 100% for the club as we saw from Viduka back in 1999 when he refused to play in the second half of a game in which we were struggling and needed him. I can’t say the team didn’t try last night because they did. A mixture of good defending and appalling finishing did for us. But if the, sometimes, bitter taste of defeat teaches us anything, it's to savour our triumphs all the more. A poet once wrote…

'For what in life is pleasure
If we do not consort with pain?
It's the rod by which we measure
The prize we seek to gain.'

Tuesday night's defeat was painful and some would say embarrassing but focus is required, not dissention. We face a game at Kilmarnock this weekend and this is followed by the daunting task of taking on the brilliant Barcelona again. What's done is done, we look to the future as we must and follow the dramatic story of Celtic FC to the next chapter. Trust me; this season will leave us with more cheers than tears. Eyes on the Prize and keep the faith!


Monday, 23 September 2013

Great expectations?
As I chatted to the fans around me at half time during the recent St Johnstone match at Celtic Park the subject turned to the upcoming tie with Barcelona. A year ago I had asked the lady who sits behind me what she was expecting when Messi and co came calling. ‘A battering’ she replied. Of course it didn’t quite turn out that way as Celtic, inspired by that wonderful support and the weight of their historic anniversary pulled off one on the shocks of the season by beating the mighty Catalans. Few who attended that game will ever forget the atmosphere or spectacle. This time around she was again less than optimistic. ‘We’re not as strong as last year,’ she began ‘and Barca will have revenge in mind.’  There seemed to be a mood of realism among the fans I spoke to that Celtic’s real fight in this group will be with Ajax for third spot and the Europa League place. Anything we pick up against Milan or Barcelona will be a bonus. That isn’t having a lack of ambition. It’s accepting that while we can still pull of some incredible victories in Europe, especially at home, the gulf in finances, squad depth and quality can be a chasm at this level. Most fans, it seems, are approaching the ‘group of dignity’ in hope rather than expectation.
Barcelona recently paid £45m for Neymar and added him to a squad including Danny Alves, (£25m) Alexis, (£20m) Mascherano, (£18m) Fabergas (£26m) and Song. (£16m) When quality such as this is blended with players from their very effective youth set up such as Messi, Xavi, Pique, Puyol and Valdes, it’s plain to see this team represents a challenge of epic proportions for Celtic. They arrive in Glasgow with 5 wins out of 5 in La Liga and have of course beaten Ajax 4-0 in the Champions League opener. As part of the Neymar deal they played a useful Santos team and crushed the Brazilians 8-0. It’s going to take a coming together of certain circumstances for Celtic to beat this team. Barcelona were in town 11 months ago so Celtic Park holds no surprises for them. They have played there on 4 occasions since 2004 winning 2 (3-1 & 3-2) and losing 2. (0-1 and 1-2) The game in October will be a titanic task for Celtic and they’ll need the supporters to be patient and create that quintessentially Celtic atmosphere. If they don’t bring their A game we may have a chance but a repeat of the heroics of 2012 remains a long shot. Don’t discount the possibility of Celtic winning the match but temper such hopes with a realistic appraisal of the size of the task. Barca don’t defend too well at times but their midfield and attack remains among the best in world football.
Ajax, as many of you no doubt noticed, were thumped 4-0 by PSV Eindhoven this weekend. There has been a pattern of struggling away from home this season for the Amsterdam club. They have so far failed to win at AZ Alkmaar, (2-3) Herenveen, (3-3) FC Groningen, (1-1) PSV Eindhoven, (0-4) and of course Barcelona. (0-4) They have leaked a surprising amount of goals on their travels and this offers real hope to Celtic when they play Ajax at Celtic park on Match Day 3. It is vital Celtic win that game to set them up for the remaining ties in the group.  Milan too, are certainly beatable at home and that game should be targeted as one we should take something from. They came to Celtic Park in 2008 as European Champions and lost to that late Scott McDonald goal. Justice was done on that occasion as the simulation for their ‘Penalty’ that night was in the ‘laughable’ category. Only one man in the stadium thought it was a penalty and unfortunately for Celtic he was the referee. A decent performance and a brave referee would give us some hope of taking something from that game.
I often say that Celtic’s targets each season should include qualification for the Champions League Group stages. Anything we achieve in the competition after that is a bonus. To come out of Pot 4 last season as the so called ‘weakest’ team and progress in a group containing Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow was an incredible achievement. It was built on solid home performances (2 wins and 1 draw) as well as picking up a win in Moscow. This season we are in what is without doubt the strongest group we have ever faced. I remain optimistic that we can progress although it may be to the Europa League. Enjoy the spectacle our fans create and the wonderful drama of the best club tournament on Earth. We may rely on UEFA President, Michel Plattini’s ‘Champions Route’ to help us get there as it means we avoid qualifiers with clubs such as Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk or Milan. But we are there on merit and players and fans of other clubs love to share in our unique Champions League atmosphere. So let’s rise to the occasion and roar out our songs of hope as Celtic joust with the giants of European football again. If Barcelona or anyone else wants to leave Celtic Park with anything, they’re going to have to earn it. We may not have the biggest budget or most talented players in Europe but we have all the heart and spirit in the world and the greatest fans you could ever ask for.  We also have a togetherness forged by a common history of adversity and prejudice and this can make Celtic very dangerous opponents. Let’s give it 100% and see what happens sometimes, just sometimes, incredible things occur on our field of dreams and Walfrid’s team, as it has shown so often in the past, fears no one.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

 Making it count...
In the wake of Celtic’s unfortunate loss in the San Siro, it’s worth considering if our defeat was due to bad luck, poor finishing of a combination of both. For many of us it’s an old story of dominating large periods of a game only to see the sucker punch arrive and undo all our good efforts. There is no doubt that we are in our most difficult ever Champions’ League Group but Lennon’s team is becoming more experienced and more confident on their travels. The Italian sporting press were clear that Milan were poor but they were also complimentary to Celtic. Gazzetta Dello Sport as you would expect rounded on Milan’s poor display by saying…
Miracle at San Siro: AC Milan collected their first three points with a 2-0 win against Celtic at the end of a game memorable only for its rare ugliness. At times it was unsuitable for a prestigious stage of the top European competition. For periods it was the Celtic salt which was shaking the San Siro. De Jong prevented Brown scoring and Stokes rattled the crossbar. But football is crazy and Zappata’s low shot, deviated by Izaguire and Forster can do nothing. And that’s not all, Muntari doubles Forster’s pain after Balotelli was lucky to escape punishment and the referee gave him the foul! Incredible! I don’t know how Milan won this game!’
An ordinary AC Milan fan commented in the section below the report of the game in Gazzetta Dello Sport…’I never thought I’d see Celtic come to the San Siro and have more ball possession than Milan. 3 points was a miracle!’ Tiscali Sport was also clear that while Milan played poorly, Celtic were a useful team…
You could see Celtic grow in this game and force the Rossonerri onto the defensive. In the second half the guests take a more control of the operation and Milan suffers, defending with nails and teeth the vehement attacks by Lennon’s men: Samaras misses the post with a fireball from the edge of the box and a near goal by Commons is deflected by Mexes. On 34 minutes the crossbar is rattled by a shot from Stokes. Milan is very fortunate. However,  three minutes later, when Zapata’s a low shot which was not great but was deflected by Izaguirre for 1-0.‘
 Other Italian sports pages were clear that Celtic were worthy of a point. Giornalettismo Sports Paper commented on the game…
‘’Two goals, three points, zero game. This is the perfect summary of the game played by Milan. Sure, there were the injured to weigh the bill but that cannot provide an alibi for the expensive squad. Against a Celtic who deserved at least one point you could and should do more. Milan appeared incoherent and devoid of ideas.’’
Most of you reading this will agree that the team was a little unfortunate to lose the game but as we’ve seen on ECL away days such as Lyon,(2-3)  Bayern Munich, (1-2)  Juventus (2-3) and Manchester United (2-3) the very highest echelons of European football is a ruthless and unforgiving place. It’s no use bemoaning bad luck because it happens to Celtic far too often to be down to luck. It’s all about scoring when those rare chances come along. We did it Moscow last season when we scored three goals from 4 or 5 half decent chances. We did it in the home tie with Barcelona when we somehow managed to win with barely 25% ball possession. In the San Siro we had several good opportunities but the end product was lacking. Perhaps the confines of Scottish football don’t demand enough to hone Celtic’s finishing skills to the level required. That ruthless streak required at the very top level simply isn’t there. Scott Brown had a great shooting opportunity in the second half and De Jong was on him blocking the shot in a heartbeat. Compare that to the static defending when Balotelli’s free kick was palmed into danger zone by Forster. Three Italians could have forced the rebound home as our defence stood and watched. It’s those small things which make the difference at this level.
This weekend, Celtic will face St Johnstone, while Milan face a strong Napoli team which deservedly defeated Borrusia Dortmund this week. The stronger European leagues demand a higher level of performance every week and that perhaps is the difference. The fact that the very best players will naturally gravitate to the greater financial rewards of the big leagues also contributes to this lack of parity. That being said football remains 11 against 11 and with determination and a bit of belief the underdog can still emerge victorious. We’ve seen Celtic beat technically superior teams on a good few occasions because football is about guts and heart as much as technical and tactical ability.
So we approach the upcoming games with some confidence. We played well and dominated possession at the home stadium of the seven times European champions. We defended fairly well in the first 80 minutes and had we taken the lead might well have won. The vital first goal took a huge deflection on its way in although the closing down was slow.  On the first day of October our old adversaries Barcelona will come to Celtic Park. Just a year ago we defeated them so they will be out for revenge. It has all the makings of a classic encounter played in the midst of the finest atmosphere in European Football. Can we discover our ruthlessness as we did last year? I think we can but it’s a huge mountain to climb as Ajax found out in the Nou Camp.  Every fan must raise the roof and drive the team on. With a little luck we might see lightning strike twice in the same spot. Being Celtic fans means we always have hope in our hearts but it’s tempered by realism and the knowledge that everything has to come together on the night for us. This group is the hardest we’ve ever faced but we’ll face it bravely and 60,000 of us will back the team to the hilt and see how the dice fall. Whatever happens our visitors will know they’ve been in one of the great arenas of world football.
There is an old Italian saying which goes: ‘Meglio un giorno da leone che cento da pecora.’ It translates as ‘Better one day as a lion than one hundred as a sheep.’  I hope we can discover our roar and perhaps add some bite to it too. Our days of being lambs to the slaughter should be well over. We live in hope. Come on you Bhoys in green!