“It’s more than just a football team, they’re playing for a cause, for a people.” Tommy Burns.
In his classic tale of the enduring power of love, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic novel “Love in the time of Cholera” charts the course of a romantic fascination, a deep longing and passion that begins in youth and persists into old age, despite never having been properly consummated. It takes on it’s own dynamic as the author describes the emotions of a single day, that we come to understand will never be repeated. The contention that there are things in our lives without which life would be less fulfilling, less rewarding, less meaningful, less spiritual, is clearly true. For me one of the things that give my life meaning, which has been part of my life for as long as I remember, is Celtic Football Club.
The Brandywell Days
Even as a young boy in the mid 1960’s going to the Brandywell to see Derry City with my father, Celtic already occupied a place in my heart. A place that would in time surpass any other sporting passion. I can take it with relative ease, if Derry City narrowly lose the League of Ireland on the last day of the season, as they have done, or if the Irish national team fail to qualify for major tournaments. Don’t get me wrong; I still like to hear of Cliftonville beating Linfield or Glentoran, or St.Pauli getting one over on Hamburg. Barca beating Real. Argentina winning the World Cup. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really bother me very much to be honest. Nor does who wins the English Premiership or even the Champions League (as long as it’s not an English team). Doesn’t register on my emotional barometer. As far as other teams go, I very much err on the side of a resigned indifference, best summed up as “Whatever happens happens.”
But not with Celtic. With Celtic there is always the anxiety of the next game, the tension of the next goal. For the most part it’s manageable. After all, we usually win domestically at any rate. But against the old ‘Rangers’ and their modern manifestation, Sevco, my emotional barometer goes off the scale. I have an abiding hatred of Rangers old and new. I despise everything they stand for. Monarchy, militarism, ‘Empire’, jingoism, deference, sectarianism, racism and downright bigotry. All are the hallmarks of the side from Govan. I don’t think all Rangers fans are mindless bigots, but it seems to me a significant section of them are. Any fans who could casually sing “The Famine Song” or fall in love overnight with someone as odious as El Hadji Diouf, need perhaps, more to be pitied than scorned. Fans who make an on going mockery out of historic child sexual abuse, and wear it as a badge of honour, puts the mind set of such people well beyond normal “banter” and mere sporting rivalry.
“Top of the Hill”
The area where I grew up in Derry, the “Top of the Hill”, was a small nationalist “enclave” in the predominantly loyalist Waterside area of the city. Even before “the Troubles” you had to be careful about where you walked, where you were, how you might get home? Nearby in the main loyalist estate in the city (strangely it was called “Irish Street”), there were many rabid Rangers fans. Some of them, like the McKnight’s and the Willis’s, had big families of teenage boys, who we used to engage with regularly. The trick was never to be caught in their patch alone. One of my closest friends at the time was Gregory Quigg. We had sat beside each other in school from our first day in Miss McCourt’s Primary 1 class. As we grew up we were often mischievous, but not vicious. We did all the wrong things. We smoked. Played snooker. We went to card schools. And we followed Celtic. But we weren’t bad kids. Just rebellious.
The Celtic View first arrived in our local newsagent, where as a young teenager I had a paper round, in the mid 1960’s. A small 4 page black and white publication, we devoured it down from cover to cover. We also were regulars at the Brandywell were fixtures against Linfield in particular, took on a new edge as the embryonic undercurrents of the Civil Rights movement came face to face with the extreme sectarianism of Linfield and their travelling support. They had lorded over us for years. Decades even, but there was change in the air. On several occasions in the late 60’s there were pitched battles in and around the Brandywell and one one occasion we drove up to 500 Linfield fans from a stand which usually contained young, mostly teenage fans of the home team.
Although not talked about much retrospectively, Celtic’s 1967 European Cup win over Inter Milan was a massive source of pride. “Our” team in Glasgow had become the Champions of Europe. The Lisbon Lions were born. Bonfires were lit in some nationalist areas across the 6 counties, and the Waterside Boy’s club where Gregory and I played soccer, had their annual Dinner Dance that night in a nearby hotel, an event which was buzzing after the result. I have no doubt the confidence accruing from Celtic’s victory had an important psychological impact on the nationalist community, a renewed confidence about who we were and what we might become. I know it did in the Top of the Hill where we lived, and areas like the Bogside and the Brandywell where I went to school. Celtic changed our lives.
Coming of age.
For some reason, I can’t quite remember exactly how, Gregory and I went to different secondary schools, but we still hung out together. By 1969 when we were finishing school as 15 year olds, our coming of age took place in a changed landscape. The area around our schools had become a battleground. From the Christian Brothers Brow of the Hill, where I went to secondary school, it was two hundreds yards from the school gate to the Rossville Flats, where in August 1969 the “Battle of the Bogside ” was making news headlines across the world. This was our hinterland, our playground, and by the age of 15 many of us were learning the tricks and the trade, of street rioting against a vastly better resourced British Army and the RUC and not getting caught. Undeterred by a mandatory 6 months sentence for “Riotous Behaviour”, we soon grew to hate their presence on our streets, with a ferocious intensity.
Very soon Derry City would be banned from the “Irish League”, as the only remaining “Catholic” team, in terms of support, following on the brutal demise of the legendary “Belfast Celtic” some decades before in the face of violence against the players by Linfield fans in a Belfast Derby.
First trip to Glasgow.
Whilst still keeping an eye on Celtic’s fortunes, there were other emerging priorities. Caught up in the maelstrom of the unfolding political crisis, it was exciting, dangerous, rebellious stuff. Without Derry City there was only Celtic. Another friend of mine from Creggan, “Wee Charlie” McLaughlin and I decided if we could get tickets we would go to see the Celtic in Glasgow. 50 years ago, in April 1970 I attended my first game. The infamous “Bobby Davidson Final” saw Aberdeen defeat Celtic 3-1 on a day of monumental referring bias and injustice, in a game which still contained many of the “Lisbon Lions” including Tommy Gemmell, Billy McNeill, Bobby Murdoch, Bobby Lennox and Jimmy Johnston. Davidson was, to use the accent of the time, an unrepentant “Bluenose”. A significant figure in the infamous “Lanarkshire Referees Association” and a prominent Freemason. He was also a regular at Ibrox. The referring was, quite simply, an affront. It was a huge disappointment. But as we returned to Ireland on the Monday morning, thoughts turned to other things.
European Cup Semi Final.
On Wednesday evening Celtic were due to play Leeds United in the European Cup Semi Final second round. On Tuesday night in a freak moment someone I knew had to cancel and there was a spare ticket. After paying for the match ticket, and for the second boat ticket in a matter of days, my 16-year-old bank was bust and after a few pints on the boat, I arrived in Glasgow mid afternoon with the equivalent of 50p. And nowhere to stay. Off the 136,000 plus that attended Hampden that night, I was one of the first into the ground. By some miracle in the madness of the occasion I found myself besides the cousins who had left me at the train station a few days earlier. Hampden in those days with an absolute death trap. It was like a pyramid. Being amongst 136,000 Celtic fans was like nothing I’d ever experienced. We moved as one great mass of humanity, my feet rarely on the ground. We came from a goal down on the night to win 2-1, making it 3-1 on aggregate to reach the final of the European Cup.
We lived in changing times, changing priorities. By now there were daily hostilities on the streets of Derry. My friend Gregory, with whom I learned much about the world, was the first of my classmates to go to Long Kesh. Soon there would be internment and Bloody Sunday. Through most of it we kept an eye on the fortunes of the Celtic, but there were other things as well, which were difficult to ignore. Regular trips to Glasgow stopped for the guts of 20 years. But deep down, despite it all we were always on our way back to Paradise. Our love never died. Through thick and thin.
These days in Paradise I would sometimes go in really early, just to sit there, just to take it all in. A kind of meditative reflection, of all that comes and goes. I don’t do it anywhere else in the world. I think of big nights I’ve witnessed being there, beating Barcelona, Manchester United, AC Milan. Sweeter still the memories of “us” doing “them” in the most important game of all, the “Glasgow Derby”. Remembering the night Big Yan Venegoor of Hessilink grabbed a winner in the 94th minute. Or with the Margaret’s crew in the “Free Broomloan” stuffing them 5-1 at Ibrox. Or with Eddie Toner and Jeanette Findlay and Ciaran Kenny, winning the league on “Helicopter Thursday” in 2008 after having been written off in April. My memories are endless. I miss everything about. Booking flights, hotel rooms, meeting people in the airport and the animated chatter about “The Bhoys”. Most of all I miss my friends, those who have sat around me for years, first for a few years in 112 of the Lisbon Lions Lower and for more than 10 years in 140 of the Jock Stein Lower. It will be a pity if we were unable to play out the season; I seriously think we’d have won the SPL by at least 20 points. But next year promises to be monumental as we head out to mark new milestones make new records in the history of “our club”. That’s provided that we are going to have football at all, at least as we have known it, for years to come? Hopefully not. As it is, I feel at a loss for all the things I took for granted and can’t wait to get back to Paradise. I know why it’s called that. I know what love is! Love in the time of Covid19!
Vincent Doherty was born in Derry but now lives in Dublin, he is enjoying his retirement by travelling to watch Celtic home and away.
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