Friday, 20 October 2017

The white sausage equator

The white sausage equator

Celtic’s tie with Bayern Munich this week got me thinking of another occasion they faced German opposition in Europe. Back in 1992-93 Season Liam Brady’s Celtic was in the middle of one of those barren spells which occur now and then in the club’s history. They had last won a trophy in 1989 when Joe Miller’s goal secured a dramatic cup win and would remain in the doldrums until 1995 when they beat Airdrie to win the cup after six long years in the wilderness.

That summer of 1992 saw Celtic supporters tortured by hope that they could finally put a side together which could match free spending Rangers. Manager Liam Brady had at best a poor record with signings as Cascarino and Gillespie had proved but the arrival of Stuart Slater and a rather jaded Frank McAvennie had the fans at least moderately optimistic for the new season. It was to prove another difficult year. The team finished well behind Rangers and Aberdeen in the league and were knocked out of the cup at Falkirk. Europe saw them paired with a decent, if struggling, Cologne side. A poor showing in Germany had Celtic facing the return leg with a 2-0 deficit to overturn.

Celtic Park was limited to 30,000 for the game as UEFA enforced post Hillsborough limits. Indeed Celtic Park was in need of rebuilding and the direction the club was taking was leading fans to ask serious questions of a board which seemed clueless about how they would finance the required changes or build a team to match cash rich Rangers. Results on the field combined with this seeming ineptitude off it were causing anger among many supporters which would eventually coalesce into open revolt as the fans organised to save their club. All of that was simmering beneath the surface as Cologne arrived in Glasgow with a swagger and confidence which was soon to be tested. Celtic’s supporters like a ‘do or die’ challenge and got right behind the team from the first moment of that game. In return the players roused themselves to give a performance which was surprisingly effective. McStay and Creaney slammed home excellent goals in the first half as the German side lost their composure and when John Collins hit the decisive third ten minutes from time it was all over. The fans sang long and loudly that night not knowing that this was to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise poor season.

I got talking to some rather stunned Cologne fans in a pub after the game and they were sporting enough to congratulate Celtic. It was obvious a 3-0 defeat was not what they had anticipated but they were full of praise for the noisy Celtic support. I kept in touch with a couple of them and invited them back to Glasgow for the Celtic v Rangers game the following spring.

Rangers were coming to Celtic Park on the back of a 44 game unbeaten run and few outside the Hoops support fancied Celtic’s chances. My two German visitors, Axel and Andreas, had a taste of the bars of the Gallowgate that day before the game and loved the singing and passion of the fans. As the songs boomed out they looked around and smiled, ‘This is what football should be about,’ one of them said.

As we headed for Celtic Park along the Gallowgate a mate in a builders van offered us a lift. Along with sundry other Celts, we piled into the back and there among the bags of plaster, planks of wood, old sinks and paint cans we banged the sides of the van as we joined in with the mix tape belting out Celtic songs on the van stereo. Someone offered Axel some of that famous tonic wine beloved of so many in Glasgow and like a good guest in our land he accepted. Then we headed out and joined the green river flowing to the old Celtic end which was literally bouncing as we made our way to a spot behind the goal. I don’t know what my German friends were expecting but the atmosphere and racket just blew them away. It seemed as if the whole Celtic end and Jungle was bouncing on the spot as they sang, ‘Soldiers are we whose lives are pledged to Ireland…..’

The game began amid a cacophony of noise and soon settled into a pattern of Celtic dominance. When John Collins finally scored in 36 minutes Celtic Park erupted. As we roared and sang our heads off a bizarre event occurred on the field; Referee, Mr Hope allowed Rangers to kick off with at least six Celtic players still celebrating the goal by the Jungle. Rangers poured forward towards the few Celtic defenders still on the field and only a fine save by Bonner prevented a goal. It was another one of those strange decisions which in many years of watching football I have yet to see replicated anywhere else. One of my German friends asked what was going on and why the Referee had done that. Before I could answer a nearby wag interjected, ‘Cos he’s a fuckin’ Hun wi a whistle!’  Andreas who spoke good English looked at me mystified, ‘Welcome to Scottish football,’ I smiled, ‘You’ll soon pick up the lingo.’  They learned a few other Glaswegian phrases that day such as; ‘atsapenalyyafud!’ or ‘deckatbasturt!’ and the ever popular ‘cmonselikfuckinintaethum!’ All in all it was an education for our friends from Germany.

That match ended in a 2-1 win for Celtic and we marched out of the stadium on a high. Sure, we’d end the season without a trophy again but it’s always nice winning those games and even in the darkest seasons Celtic would usually gub them at least once. As we made our way along the Gallowgate again I asked what they thought of the game and they both agreed that it was intense beyond anything they’d experienced before. ‘It’s like your life depended on the result,’ one said.

A few days after that game, Scotland played Germany at Ibrox and I went along with the two aforementioned German lads. On the bus heading along Paisley Road a big group of German fans got on. They were noisy and boisterous but not in any way threatening.  My two companions seemed tense, ‘Bavarians’ one mumbled, as if this was in itself an explanation. It transpired that regional tensions and rivalries exist in Germany as they do anywhere else. There was, at least in footballing terms, no love lost between Saxons of northern Germany and their southern compatriots from Bavaria. Andreas muttered, ‘They drive around with car plates saying ‘freistatt Bayern’ (free state Bavaria) and think they are better than the rest of us.’ He then told me about the imaginary line drawn in Germany called the ‘Weißwurstäquator,’ (The white sausage equator) which separates the ‘crazy’ southern Germans from the rest. I guess all countries have these tensions and divisions but it was interesting to see it at first hand.  

Celtic’s trip to Munich this week got me thinking about why many German supporters have a soft spot for Scottish football. You’d think with the power and prestige of the Bundesliga they’d be happy with their lot and disinterested in a small league on the periphery of Western Europe. One told me it’s because football in Scotland is rawer, more like the way it used to be in Germany. For some it’s politics with left leaning supports like FC St Pauli admiring Celtic supporters for their willingness to engage in politics in the sporting arena and champion causes close to their heart. Mostly though I think they like Scottish supporters for their humour, passion and willingness to back their team over and over even though it is unlikely to win.

Football is at its heart a tribal game and in the big leagues of Europe, awash with money the corporate side of football is dominating more. In England we see football tourists with half and half scarves containing the names of clubs who are traditionally bitter rivals. I could never envisage anyone producing a Celtic-Rangers version of that! There is something of a kickback against modern football with its high ticket prices which drive less wealthy fans out of the game. We have seen protests in France and England about extortionate pricing and even a huge display in Tunisia which read: ‘Football-Created by the poor, stolen by the rich.’

Perhaps some still see in smaller leagues around Europe a more innocent time when money didn’t rule everything. As the so called elite clubs of Europe mumble about cutting the number of clubs from smaller nations playing in the Champions League they’d do well to remember the roots of this wonderful game and lose some of their arrogance, greed and avarice.

Football belongs to us all not just the rich.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Billy Boys

Billy Boys
I attended a funeral in a cemetery in the north of Glasgow some years back and as we made our way out, I got chatting to an old fella whose face spoke of violent encounters in his youth. ‘A few characters buried in here,’ he informed me before listing various gangland figures who had their final resting place in that tranquil green acre. ‘The biggest character of the lot doesn’t even have a headstone,’ he went on. His tales got me thinking about the history of my home city and the echoes of the past which still reverberate today.

Between the wars Glasgow was to say the least a very tough city to live in for those of limited means; mass unemployment, poverty and a vicious gang culture made some working class districts mean indeed. The gangs held sway in many areas with names like The Shamrock, the Derry, the Norman Conks, the Cumbie, the Tim Malloys and the Billy Boys entering common parlance. The names of these gangs often betrayed the sectarian nature of the city’s geography. The influx of Irish migrants during the mid and late nineteenth century saw Glasgow’s Catholic population grow hugely. They were far from welcomed by a vociferous and aggressive minority in the major cities who saw the newcomers as competition for jobs and houses and found the Catholic religion of the majority of these migrants reawakening old prejudices.

The slump which followed World War One saw unemployment and poverty at high levels in Scotland. As is usually the case in such times, some looked for a convenient scapegoat and the Irish and their offspring were an easy target. Street gangs with a pronounced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish agenda appeared; chief among them the Billy Boys in the east end of Glasgow. Founded by Billy Fullarton a local man with no love for Catholics, the Billy Boys and their junior wing the ‘Derry’ were said to have 800 members. Local legend has it that Fullarton was attacked and badly beaten by a rival, Catholic gang and founded the Billy Boys to counter them. Whatever the truth, the Catholics who made up a large percentage of the population of Bridgeton in Glasgow’s east end were not prepared to sit back and play the passive victim. They gave as good as they got and from the tenements of French Street, Poplin Street and Norman Street came the Norman Conks, a gang every bit as violent of the Billy Boys. Some of their clashes were almost medieval given the weaponry and savagery displayed.

Orange marching season was often the time of highest tension as the Orange Order made a point of marching through areas such as the Gorbals, Calton and other areas with a high Catholic population. The Billy Boys and their band came along too and the predictable riot often ensued. The gang members were usually men in their 20s and 30s although older men were often involved too. The social conditions which helped spawn the gangs were presided over by Politicians who often used them for their own purposes. There were strong links between Freemasonry, Orangeism and the Conservative Party in Scotland in those days and local Politicians could call on the Billy Boys to disrupt meetings of the Labour Party. Indeed dedicated sectarian political parties such as the Scottish Protestant League and the Protestant Action Party could boast of over 30% share of the vote in local elections in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were fascist overtones to some of their policies and this had its attractions for men like Fullerton.

During the 1926 General Strike when workers fought against poverty wages, Fullerton and some of his colleagues acted as strike breakers and received medals and certificates for their activities. Given the direction of travel Rangers Football Club decided on in the years after 1912, it was only to be expected that they would have the faithful backing of groups like the Billy Boys. Their song was soon echoing around Ibrox and is still heard on occasion today…

Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys
Hello, hello, you'll know us by our noise
We're up to our knees in Fenian blood
Surrender or you'll die
For we are the Brigton Billy Boys’

The City fathers grew weary of Glasgow’s reputation being trashed by the razor gangs and popular novels such as ‘No mean city.’ They decided to act and called in a Police Chief called Percy Sillitoe who had built a reputation as a tough, no nonsense cop and who had pacified the gangs of Sheffield. Sillitoe arrived in Glasgow and immediately decided to fight fire with fire. He recruit teams of big, tough cops who were encouraged to ‘get stuck in,’ when they tangled with the gangs. Batons were soon breaking heads and van loads of police roamed the city waiting for the call on their new radios to go deal with any disturbance. The courts and jail cells were soon full and many other gang members found themselves in the city’s casualty wards after tangling with Sillitoe’s ‘batter squads.’ The days of the gangs having free reign in Glasgow were over.

Fullarton himself was arrested when he led a gang of drunken, tooled up, Billy Boys through Glasgow. He had foolishly brought a child along and the gang were intercepted by a smaller but determined group of Policemen who arrested him after a brutal struggle. He was sent to prison for 10 months for being drunk in charge of a child. As World War 2 approached he found common cause with Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists and soon had a 200 strong group of Black-shirts under his command. It is said he also started the first Glasgow chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

‘King’ Billy Fullerton was a product of his times but the attitudes he and his like fostered still echo in some corners of Scottish society. In 1962 he died alone and impoverished in a Bridgeton tenement. In that same year, Percy Sillitoe, the hammer of the gangs died too. It is recorded that 1000 people walked with Fullerton’s cortege from Bridgeton to Riddrie Cemetery. Scottish poet Edwin Morgan recalled his funeral with an ambiguous poem which at once scorned the violence of men like Fullerton but also offered some mitigation in calling out the appalling social conditions which spawned men like him….

King Billy by Edwin Morgan
Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees,
The gates shone cold
Flaring the hissing leaves and branches
swung heavy across lamps.
Gravestones huddle in drizzling shadow,
flickering streetlight scanned the requiescats
a name and an urn, a date, a dove
picked out, lost, half regained.
What is this dripping wreath blown from its grave?
Red, white, blue and gold
To our leader of Thirty years ago’-
Bareheaded, in dark suits, with flutes
and drums they brought him here, in procession
seriously, King Billy of Brigton, dead,
from Bridgeton Cross a memory of violence
brooding days of empty bellies
billiard smoke and a sour pint
boots or fists, famous sherrickings
the word, the scuffle, the flash, the shout
bloody crumpling in the close,
bricks for Papish windows, Get
the Conks next time, the Conks ambush
the Billy Boys, The Billy Boys the conks, till
Sillitoe scuffs the razors down the stank,
No, but it isn’t the violence they remember
but the legend of a violent man
born poor, gang leader in the bad times
of idleness and boredom, lost in better days
a Bouncer in a betting club
a quiet man at last, dying
alone in Bridgeton in a box bed.
So a thousand people stopped the traffic
for the hearse of a folk hero and the flutes
threw onward Christian Soldiers to the wind
from unironic lips, the mourners kept
in step and there were some who wept,
Go from the grave. The shrill flutes
are silent, the march dispersed
Deplore what is to be deplored
and then find out the rest.

Glasgow has long since left the violence of the inter war years in the history books. Of course it can still be as gritty and tough as any other city but the levels of poverty and ignorance which produced the razor gangs of the 1920’s and 30’s are long gone. So too are the disgraceful housing conditions and over-crowding which blighted so many lives. It would be wrong to suggest that the dragon of bigotry has been completely banished from our land but it is certainly in retreat. Those who ruled over a society where slums were tolerated and people left in ignorance and disease bear their share of responsibility for the genesis of men like Fullerton. As Victor Hugo wrote in ‘Les Miserables’…

“If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” 

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Dreams and songs to sing

Dreams and Songs to sing

‘I don’t like Old Firm games’ a visiting work colleague informed me this week, clearly unaware of my lifelong passion for Celtic. ‘They bring out the worst in both sets of fans.’ I asked what he meant and he responded by saying rather stereotypically ‘It’s all songs about Pope from one side and the IRA from the other lot. They don’t seem to have any songs actually about football.’ I shrugged at him, ‘you think so?’ I let him do most of the talking as it can be quite enlightening to see how people perceive Celtic and their fans. As he rambled on it was clear most of his rather ignorant opinions were garnered from the tabloid press and that he had never actually attended a Derby match in Glasgow.

Later in the week as I settled down to watch the full 90 minutes of Celtic’s win at Ibrox on YouTube, I recalled the conversation and decided to jot down the songs coming from both sets of supporters to put my ill-informed colleague’s theory to the test. The video begins at kick off and so misses songs which may have been sung before the game started. It was hardly a strict scientific method but it did give a snapshot of the sort of songs sung by both sets of supporters on a day which some feel brings out the worst in both sets of fans. The following list represents the songs clearly audible on the YouTube footage and being sung by thousands of people. That is not to say that everyone who was at the game was singing the songs or necessarily agrees with them but nonetheless this is what that particular match sounded like. Firstly the Home support which was noticeably quieter as the game turned against their side. The following songs were heard in this order loud and clear at the game:

  • ·        Derry’s Walls
  • ·        We are Rangers super Rangers
  • ·        Rule Britannia
  • ·        Every Saturday we follow
  • ·        Derry’s Walls
  • ·        Jimmy Saville-He’s one of your own
  • ·        Every Saturday we follow
  • ·        The Billy Boys
  • ·        Derry’s Walls

Only two of these song, ‘Every Saturday we follow’ and ‘We are Rangers, Super Rangers’ could be said to be a football songs although the latter contains a gratuitous sectarian reference to Celtic fans. (‘We hate Celtic, Fenian bastards’). The rest are expressions of unionist/Loyalist identity; (Derry’s Walls, Rule Britannia) or are openly sectarian. (The Billy Boys) While the ‘Jimmy Saville’ chant represents an ongoing issue among Rangers fans of chants about paedophilia. This is offensive on many levels but more so when one considers the sad fact that statistically some around them in the home support will have been victims of this despicable crime. It is fair to say that on this particular Saturday, football songs were thin on the ground among the Rangers support.

Celtic, as the away side, had far fewer supporters at the game; 7000 out of a crowd of 50,000 but nonetheless were very vocal and audible. They sang more often and for longer as their side dominated the game and scored two goals. The following list is of songs clearly emanating from the Celtic end of Ibrox:

  • ·        Celtic, Celtic
  • ·        Let the People Sing
  • ·        Get into them
  • ·        Lonesome Boatman
  • ·        Kieran Tierney
  • ·        Celtic Symphony
  • ·        Celtic Goal:
  • ·        Oh, oh,oh,oh,oh We’re Glasgow Celtic
  • ·        Boys of the old Brigade
  • ·        Here we go for 10 in a row
  • ·        Celtic Goal
  • ·        Oh, oh,oh,oh,oh We’re Glasgow Celtic
  • ·        Leigh Leigh Super Leigh
  • ·        In the heat of Lisbon
  • ·        Kieran Tierney
  • ·        Let’s all do the Huddle
  • ·        Zombie Nation
  • ·        Broony Broony
  • ·        Celtic-COYBIG (Echo)
  • ·        Grace
  • ·        Leigh Leigh Super Leigh
  • ·        Moussa Dembele oh oh
  • ·        This is how it feels to be Celtic
  • ·        Moussa Dembele oh oh
  • ·        No Huns at Ibrox (As Rangers fans Leave)
  • ·        Full Time
  • ·        Oh, oh,oh,oh,oh We’re Glasgow Celtic
  • ·        This is how it feels to be Celtic
  • ·        Oh, oh,oh,oh,oh We’re Glasgow Celtic

As you can see the Celtic support has a far wider repertoire of songs to call upon than their Rangers counterparts. Celtic supporters were heard to sing 19 different songs at Ibrox, the vast majority being traditional songs about their players (Moussa Dembele, Kieran Tierney, Leigh Griffiths) or club (We’re Glasgow Celtic, etc.) Four songs could be said to be expressions of Irish identity: Let the People sing, Celtic symphony, Boys of the old Brigade and Grace. Of these four songs only one (Boys of the old Brigade) could be said to be controversial in the eyes of some as it mentions the IRA. Overall though it is plain to see that Celtic supporters have developed a huge song book which is as diverse as it is interesting. Celtic standards like ‘A grand old team’ or ‘You’ll never walk alone’ weren’t audible on the video and this demonstrates further the huge range of songs the Celtic support has to call on.

It’s not point scoring or petty goading of Rangers supporters to suggest that they really could and should be updating their song book. They seem to be like a man with one CD playing the same songs over and over. Nor do many of these songs bring credit on them as football supporters or human beings. There can be no place for sectarian or racist chanting at sport and the songs about paedophilia are simply disgraceful. Any who take part in them or condone them need to have a long hard look at themselves. I’m sure many Rangers fans feel the same and the often silent majority need to make their voices heard.

As for the Celtic support, there is clearly a huge amount of noisy backing for the team coming from the stands for the team; the majority of it football songs which should cause offense to no one. The support has never hid from the debate about the club’s Irish roots and how this should be expressed. It’s an ongoing conversation and Celtic fans who remember the old Jungle will recognise that the song book they have to call on is far more wide and varied than it once was.

There is an evolution among football supporters of all hues as the years pass. Songs change as times and attitudes move on. The sort of racism once common in 1970’s British football grounds is now virtually eradicated or at least driven underground by the decent majority. Celtic fans have remained as passionate and vocal as they have always been but there has been a clear widening of their repertoire of songs in recent decades demonstrated by the songs sung at Ibrox last week. It’s ironic that the much maligned Green Brigade has led the way in introducing many of the new songs to the Celtic fans’ song book.

If a visitor returned to Scotland after 40 years abroad and went to Celtic Park, he’d notice immediately the huge change in the songs being sung by Celtic fans. Yes that identity, pride and recognition of the club’s roots still remains but much has changed for the better. If that same visitor went to Ibrox to watch Rangers play he’d be struck by how little the songs have changed. There are no doubt some who say ‘Tradition’ is a good thing but that’s clearly not always true; after all slavery was once ‘traditional’ in many cultures. Those among the Rangers support who refuse to evolve will increasingly look like dinosaurs left behind as the world moves on.

On the field Celtic played well and defeated a very ordinary Rangers side before heading to Belgium to win convincingly at Anderlecht. I could already hear new songs forming among the 3000 Celtic fans in Brussels as they celebrated a famous win. It is that very ability to be inventive and witty which seems sadly lacking among some other fan groups.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Passion and Pride

Passion and Pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Jim had seen to that.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Lost in contemplation

Lost in contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think he was right.

Saturday, 9 September 2017



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old John would have liked that.