WORDS: VINCENT FORRESTER
The past two decades have been a bountiful time for Celtic. One fan reflects on 20 years spent getting to grips with his club’s place in the Glasgow bubble and the complex world of Scottish football…
I am a football fan and I was born in Glasgow. From these two basic facts you can reasonably assume I support one of two clubs.
Perhaps the same could be said if I hailed from Manchester or Birmingham, but there is a certain absolutism about football fanaticism in Scotland’s first city. I once read that Glasgow University has a higher proportion of local students than any university in Europe and that devotion to the city applies also to its football fans. There cannot be many cities where the populace are deeper in the thrall of its two biggest clubs.
When I tell you additionally I was raised as a Catholic, you can be fairly sure with which club my allegiances lie – Celtic.
I am loathe to bring religion into this paean about football, but it would be disingenuous to avoid the issue or deny its significance. Indeed, as a boy, I was told to answer the question ‘Who do you support?’ with the words ‘Partick Thistle’, just in case the truthful answer would get me in trouble either for my taste in football teams or the beliefs of my parents.
The root of football’s association with religion in Scotland predates the sport altogether. As the second city of the Empire and one of its biggest ports, 19th-century Glasgow was both a loyal British stronghold and a melting pot of immigrant communities, one of the largest of which was the Irish community. And, as the popularity of football trickled down from the public schools of the Home Counties to the working classes, clubs sprang up across the country to represent interests and associations of all kinds.
Celtic was one such club. Although it was founded in 1888 to bring relief to the poor of Glasgow’s East End – not, as with Hibernian in Edinburgh, to support the city’s Catholic immigrants – it quickly became synonymous with Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community, not least because many of the poor folk it served came from that group.
Rangers soon emerged as Celtic’s main rivals, thanks to the proximity of the clubs as well as their evenly matched on-field tussles. Quite naturally, Rangers attracted a more reactionary, Establishment crowd which came to be defined, popularly at least, by its opposing religious position.
More than 100 years later, the story is pretty much the same. Studies into sectarianism by Glasgow City Council and others have shown that most Celtic fans are, or were raised, Catholic and most Rangers fans are, or were raised, Protestant. In my experience, the stats seem to hold true: I don’t remember there being a single Rangers fan at my Catholic primary school, and there were only a handful at my Catholic secondary school – one of whom was my brother.
But please, please, don’t get the wrong idea. I mention religion because it is difficult, and misleading, to talk about Celtic’s history and its place in society in Glasgow without explaining its association with Catholicism. The club was founded by a priest, for God’s sake (literally). But religion is not important to the club or the majority of its fans today. My late father, the Catholic of my parents, was actually an Aberdeen fan, by virtue of being the youngest of nine in a house with the rule each child had to support a different team; my Fife-born mother, raised in the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian denomination, was originally a Dunfermline fan (before years of being dragged by me to watch Celtic persuaded her to give up that nonsense). Celtic supporters and Rangers supporters don’t all hate each other. In fact, most fans don’t hate each other at all.
Despite supporting a club that wins, well, a lot of its games, my first memory of Celtic is one of disappointment: the defeat on penalties at the hands of Raith Rovers in the 1994 Coca-Cola League Cup final. I don’t remember much about the game (it finished 2-2 after extra time, the internet tells me), but I do remember thinking afterwards, “Hey, this is weird, I thought we won everything.”
I suppose that shows I’d subconsciously taken on board the mythology and history of the club at an early age, because the past few years had been pretty bad for Celtic – we finished fourth in the league in 1993/94 and third in each of the three years before that. In fact, we hadn’t won the league since 1987/88, the season of my birth, and Rangers were closing in on nine titles in a row – a record we set in our European Cup-winning heyday under the great Jock Stein.
Rangers did manage to equal the record, but Celtic stopped the rot the following season under the stewardship of the enigmatic Wim Jansen and thanks to the goals of Henrik Larsson, the finest man to ever walk this earth.
Oh, Henke. Words cannot begin to illustrate my deep love for Henrik Larsson. I don’t merely admire him, or idolise him, or respect him. I BLOODY LOVE HIM. A friend of mine once found himself pinned up against a wall for suggesting the majestic Swede was not world class. I will not be held responsible for my actions where Larsson is concerned. It was a privilege to see him wear my team’s colours and I doubt I will see his like again. Hell will freeze over before he is displaced from atop my list of favourite players.
In truth, I’ve been lucky to support Celtic at a relatively bountiful time. In the seasons since that Coca-Cola Cup disaster, we’ve won the league eight times, the Scottish Cup six times and the League Cup five times, we’ve reached the final of the Uefa Cup (losing out in 2003 to Mourinho’s Porto side that would win the Champions League the following year) and we’ve qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League on three occasions, this season included. Pretty good going by anyone’s standards (especially considering we were only saved from backruptcy, and the possibility of liquidation, in 1994), even if I have glossed over the truly farcical period under John Barnes that brought us The Sun‘s peerless ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious’ headline.
What makes it more impressive is the fact the SPL gets worse every year. While it’s far from the only factor, the expansion of the Premier League has had a terrible impact on its peely-wally cousin up north. From 2013, Scotland will be 24th in Uefa’s league co-efficient, behind Belarus, Sweden and Poland. Not long ago it was ninth and enjoying the unbridled pleasure of two Champions League places. But when even the bigger ‘other’ SPL clubs – Dundee United, Aberdeen, Hearts – can only offer their best players salaries on a par with League One, it’s not hard to see why the talent pool is shrinking. It might be just a few years since John Hartson and Chris Sutton moved to Scotland from Premier League clubs, but it already feels like a different era.
This can be a great source of frustration, because Celtic have everything they need to compete at the highest level. Or rather, we have everything we need to getto that level – a 60,000-seater stadium, a £10m training facility, a worldwide fan base, a renowned history and a sensible but passionate board – except the wherewithal to actually make it happen, hamstrung as we are by the inferior league to which we are bound.
But that’s life. Celtic is a Scottish club and a Glaswegian club. Sure, we could throw everything behind a repatriation campaign or an Atlantic League or some other pan-European money-spinning exercise; we could get rid of our green and white stripes and make a move on the Asian market with a dashing red kit, à la Cardiff City. But that would be an insult to our history. Our fabled Lisbon Lions, who broke down Inter’s catenaccio to become the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, did so with a squad composed entirely of East End boys (with the exception of Bobby Lennox, who was born in Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast).
I don’t expect us to source our players locally any more, but I do expect us to remember where we came from. After all, some things are more important than winning, as the words of The Celtic Song remind the faithful before every home game:
We don’t care if we win, lose or draw,
Darn the hair do we care,
Because we only know that there’s going to be a show,
And the Glasgow Celtic will be there.