Celtic to the Core But Don’t Just Keep the Faith – Also Keep the Heid

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Today I am excited, nervous, pensive but optimistic. Confident but not conceited. My first thirty three columns have been about politics but my thirty fourth will be about my other passion in life, football and the famous Glasgow Celtic.

My team travels to the Ibrox home of our fiercest football rivals for the last league game of the 2018 calendar year. We travel with the smallest band of supporters since the first ever Glasgow Derby match in 1890. Normally 7,000 tickets are issued to Celtic for the Ibrox fixture but the high heid yins at Ibrox, home of Rangers F.C., took the decision at the start of the season to reduce that allocation of tickets to only 750. In retaliation Celtic similarly reduced the Rangers fans allocation of tickets which meant only 800 of them were present https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/celtic-vs-rangers-only-800-13178751 to see their team outplayed and comfortably defeated 1-0, going on 3 or 4 but for the woodwork and display of the Rangers keeper on the day, on Sunday, September 2nd at Celtic Park.

Such is the rivalry connected to this fixture many Celtic fans, and others, refuse to recognise Rangers as the same team that was formed in February 1872 as it was effectively liquidated at the end of season 2011/12 as a result of years of financial mismanagement and tax evasion that resulted in thousands of creditors not being paid and the club being demoted to the 4th tier of Scottish football to start all over again.

It had been in the top league in Scotland continuously since 1872 and became the first club in the world to win more than 50 national league titles, currently claiming 54 such titles. However the schemes the owners of the club devised to enable them to sign top quality players and pay them tax free wages and bonuses disadvantaged all the other clubs in the league and amounted to cheating. The fans of the club should not be held responsible for those disreputable actions but the owners certainly should as they acted criminally and with disregard for the inherent rules of fairness attached to sportsmanship.

The club and its fans have been punished through demotion and many associated with the old regime are still being pursued by the Inland Revenue for unpaid tax bills https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/45322276 so I will refer to them as Rangers for ease of reference but acknowledge there is a strong case to consider them a new club given the liquidation of the old club, just as the continuous history of my own club was threatened in March 1994 when Celtic was hours from bankruptcy and liquidation due to mismanagement by two family dynasties, the Whites and the Kellys https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/fergus-mccanns-battle-save-celtic-3013568 . If Glasgow Celtic formed in 1888 had indeed went into liquidation in March 1994 one wonders if we would have lost the right to continue to call ourselves Celtic?

The aim of this column is to applaud the passion and devotion of football supporters everywhere while seeking to caution against rivalry becoming hatred and healthy competition becoming unhealthy detestation.

Violence in any form has no place in sport and getting behind your team should mean songs and chants of encouragement designed to inspire your players to brilliance on the park not hate filled jibes or songs directed against your opponents drawing attention to their skin colour, religion or other personal characteristics. By all means make your home ground an intimidating place to perform in through the volume of noise and chants in support of your team. But ditch the poison of ignorant and ugly racism and religious bigotry.

Rangers supporters should ‘Follow, Follow’ their team by all means but abhorrent declarations about ‘being up to their knees in fenian blood’ are simply unacceptable. They should stick to ‘Simply The Best’ and sing about saving their beloved Queen if they wish but ditch the hate filled bigotry and associated racism.

Passion and football go hand in hand. They are inseparable ingredients to both playing football and watching your team. It is a contact sport requiring commitment, skill, energy, thought and courage. I love players who give 100%, who play for their jersey, who are willing to run through brick walls for their team. That is what makes football the greatest of all sports. But aggression without control and commitment without discipline is simply not good enough, both on and off the park.

As a wee boy I remember travelling all over Scotland alongside my dad and uncle to support Celtic. We travelled in the St Brendan’s Celtic Supporters Bus from Linwood and from age six to ten every Saturday afternoon, and some weeknights, we faithfully followed the ‘Bhoys in Green’. In those days TV companies didn’t run football and 3pm kick offs on a Saturday were certainties.

I was spoiled as a Celtic supporter. I was too young to remember our finest triumph in Lisbon on May 25th 1967 when we became the first British team to lift the European Cup, brushing aside the mighty Italian giants of Inter Milan with style and panache and with a whole team recruited from within 30 miles of the Celtic Stadium in Parkhead on the east end of Glasgow, a feat that will never ever be repeated by any other team. But I do remember watching the incredible Battle of Britain matches between English Champions Leeds United and Scottish Champions Celtic in April 1970. It was the European Cup semi-final and Celtic had already disposed of FC Basel, Benfica and Fiorentina before meeting Leeds.

I was only 6 years old but I remember my dad and uncle being upset at how roundly Celtic was written off prior to the games by the English press. Yet we went to Leeds and won 1-0 before defeating them 2-1 in the return leg in front of an all-time record crowd in European competitions of 136,505 https://talksport.com/football/130174/top-10-biggest-attendances-european-cup-champions-league-history-unbelievably-huge-crowds/. Unfortunately we lost the European Cup final in Italy’s San Siro stadium against the unfancied Dutch team Feynoord. They beat us 2-1 after extra time and were deserved winners, the first Dutch team to lift the trophy. Although Ajax went on to lift it the next three years in a row.

My dad refused to take me to matches against Rangers, ‘Old Firm’ games, as he didn’t want me exposed to the hatred and bile that was associated with the fixture. However I distinctly remember being a very happy seven year old in May 1971 when we won the Scottish Cup against Rangers after a replay. The first game ended 1-1 in front of 120,000 supporters at Scotland’s national stadium, Hampden, and the replay took place four days later on May 12th again at Hampden. I watched the highlights of both games and thought Celtic deserved to win. Lou Macari and Harry Hood scored the goals in the replay. For a midweek game only four days after the drawn final the crowd of over 103,000 was incredible.

As an eight year old I witnessed Celtic clinch their record 7th title in a row at tiny Methil in Fife on Saturday, April 15th. We beat East Fife 3-0 but the after match celebrations were muted as we had a huge game coming up only four days later. Earlier in April Celtic had secured a credible 0-0 draw in the European Cup semi-final 1st leg away to Inter Milan. They were visiting Parkhead for the 2nd decisive leg on April 19th and we fancied our chances at home. It was a very tight game and ended goalless again. It went to penalties to decide who would play Ajax in the 1972 European Cup final. I couldn’t believe my eyes when my favourite player that season blasted his penalty over the bar. It was our 1st kick and Dixie Deans just loved scoring goals so everyone expected him to score. Sadly it wasn’t to be and the Italians were coolness personified as they each slotted their kicks home to send us home despondent https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjhrLqndD1U.

However as a Celtic supporter there is always another challenge around the corner and two and half weeks later we were back to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final against Hibernian from Edinburgh. They had a right good team in those days and Celtic had an exhausting season so a tight game was expected. The crowd was again huge at over 106,000. We were moved during the game due to some overcrowding and I was placed onto my dad’s shoulders and guided onto the gravel running track surrounding the pitch and moved to another part of the ground. It didn’t dampen my spirits. We scored two early goals through legendary captain Billy McNeil and Dixie Deans before they pulled one back and half-time saw the game poised at 2-1. Then wee Dixie redeemed himself with two more wonderful goals and wrote himself into the cup final hat-trick scorers record books (he was to score another one in the league cup final two years later against Hibs again) and Celtic went on to a record setting 6-1 cup final victory with two other late goals from Lou Macari. Dixie’s ‘roly poly’ celebration after his hat-trick goal remains one of the most memorable in the history of Scottish football.

By the age of nine I began playing football with a proper team called Pollok United Boys Club. My dad took a keen interest in my development and started coming to watch me and within a year volunteered to help run the team. That began a relationship with the local football team that was to span nearly twenty years and my dad and uncle became twin volunteer coaches. I didn’t get to see as many Celtic games thereafter as I was determined to stick in and maybe one day actually play for the famous ‘Hoops’. I missed the buzz of the big crowds and the excitement on the way to the games but I wanted to be on the pitch one day not just the terraces.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be although several of my team-mates did go on to make the professional grade I was only ever good enough to play at semi-professional level for a number of ‘Junior’ teams in the west of Scotland. One of them was St Anthonys from Govan and they played in green and white hoops so those were proud seasons.

I have witnessed a lot of good robust banter and a fair share of hatred and bile so I reckon I know the difference at football matches. On August 4th 1979 I defied my dad’s wishes and sneaked away with my friend Paul to watch Celtic play Rangers in the Dryborough cup final at Hampden. In truth we were poor that day and were well beaten 3-1. Two Rangers Greats turned on the style that day and sunk us with superb goals. Sandy Jardine and Davie Cooper were excellent. A guy I went on to befriend and play alongside in charity football games scored the third, John MacDonald. We left before the cup was presented and what happened next made the day more memorable than the game.

As we waited for the bus to my friends’ house in Glasgow city centre we were involved in an altercation that could have changed my life. In order to hide the fact I was going to the game I had to stay overnight with my friend. We were only 15 and he stayed in a place called Erskine outside of Glasgow. I proudly wore my Celtic scarf around my neck, something my dad always discouraged, and after a while a group of Rangers fans assembled at the same bus stop as us, on Argyle Street under a railway bridge. This one guy with a Rangers scarf around his neck turned to me and said “shite round your neck”. I took that to be a challenge and replied, stupidly in retrospect, “naw shite round your neck”. Within seconds the guy next to the big mouth turned round and approached where I was sort of sitting against the big glass window of a shop. I stood up to meet him and regretted the fact he was bigger than his mate. In for a penny, in for a pound I thought. It’s going to be a ‘square-go’, a fist fight. I stood up straight to face him and readied myself to throw a punch if he raised his hands. Then whoosh, quick as a flash, a big shiny metal blade is held up to my cheek and I froze. “Dae ye wan it the noo”? is what I think I heard him say and I looked up at the bus top deck which had now arrived at the bus stop and saw a number of Rangers supporters gesticulating in a way which was designed to encourage this guy to slash my face.

This all happened in a matter of seconds but felt like an eternity to me. The blade looked huge and I swear I could feel it against my jaw when I suddenly noticed a big bare forearm in my eye-line firmly grab this guy’s knife-hand and pull it away from my jaw with the words “you don’t need tae dae that tae him”, quickly followed by an instruction to me, “fuck off wee man”. I didn’t need any further encouragement. My legs were like jelly but they managed to carry me away from the bus stop along Argyle Street and around the corner into Anderston bus station where I stopped to catch my breath and discuss what had happened with my mate Paul and try and stop my legs shaking.

I should say to this day I rebuke my mate for not intervening to save me but he insists it was better for both of us that he didn’t rise to the challenge that day. The real moral of this tale is that the guy who saved me with the large bare forearm actually had a prominent tattoo on it. I remember it vividly. It was a man in a big white horse. It was a depiction of King Billy of whom Rangers fans sing constantly in reference to the 1690 Battle of the Boyne which they interpret as a victory against the ‘Papists’. Frankly that day, at that moment, I couldn’t give a damn about the historical dubiety of the whole story I was just glad to be kept out of the hospital accident and emergency department getting stitches to what would have been a permanently scarred face.

At fifteen years of life I could have been horribly disfigured for wearing a Celtic scarf and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly many others have not been as fortunate as me. Some fans have been brutally assaulted and even killed in hate filled violence connected with ‘Old Firm’ games (https://www.theguardian.com/football/1999/sep/18/newsstory.sport15 ; https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/rangers-fan-admits-kicking-celtic-1034336 ; https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1362761/Old-Firm-derby-shame-Pitbull-savagery-Celtic-Rangers-worth-mayhem.html ). Mindless and savage acts of violence that have killed and maimed individuals over football rivalry are simply pathetic and unacceptable. They are a badge of shame for Scotland and although statistics show things are not as bad today as they were when I was in my teens one single assault is one too many.

I am a pretty fanatical Celtic fan. I will be over the moon if we win at Ibrox today and Brilliant Brendan Rodgers writes himself into the history books as the first manager to lead Celtic to 5 successive victories there for 100 years. I will be sad if we get beat or even only draw but that passion is contained within the necessary recognition that it is only a game of football. I will watch the game in my house with mixed company. The 5 Celtic fans will outnumber the 2 Rangers fans and will be given uncomfortable seats but we will watch the game together, slag each other, rip the piss out of each other and then move on. We are friends before the game and we will be friends after the game no matter what happens.

Some of my closest, most loyal and most trusted friends are die-hard Rangers fans. Our banter can sometimes be fierce but it is always only banter. I hope for a great Celtic victory today as much as any fan but I hope just as much for a trouble-free and violence free day. Don’t let yourself down today whatever colour you are wearing. Support your team to the hilt but remember it is only a game. Hail, hail.

Tommy Sheridan 

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Posted in Tommy Sheridan's Columns.

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