Mention “Football” and “Scotland” to any football fan south of Hadrian’s wall, and you’ll get a variety of responses : Hot Shot Hamish, Old Firm, two-horse race, crap goalkeepers, teams with stupid names, Jock Stein, Tartan Army, shite World Cup songs. You name it, it’s been said. Now, SW19, never one to take what people say at face value, decided to take a summer excursion up north and take in a nice pre-season at Glasgow Celtic.
Confession time : this is not the first time I’ve watched Celtic, I watched them earlier this year at Loftus Road vs Fulham, and it was a most enjoyable experience. True, if I go to any more Celtic games I’ll have to start changing my name to Wee Rab (which does have a ring to it, admittedly) and start learning the lyrics to Fields Of Athenry properly, but as far as Scottish clubs go the Parkhead club are the only ones I really give a shit about. When it turned out that Celtic were playing Arsenal on the very day I was up in Glesga you can bet the understaffed ticket office was getting a nice pounding (telecoms wise).
Ticket (eventually) in hand, I stood in the centre of Glesga, right by the railway station, and casually observed people in green-and-white hoops milling about, spending money in the Celtic superstores dotted around the place. Some people from the blue half of the city were mingling in OK, though they were largely conspicious by their absence. Waiting for the bus, I couldn’t help overhearing a family kitted out in green and white looking forward to their first fitba match for some time. Sounded like they’d just hopped off the Belfast ferry as well. As queues for various buses came and went, I jumped the 43 and found myself the only Parkhead-bound passenger. All will become clearer later on.
Most Celtic fans walk to Parkhead, it’s about 2 miles if that, and suffice to say, the bus I was on got stuck in traffic. Despite stopping outside a market stall owned by the Partick fan proclaiming that the Jags were going to win the 2002 SPL (er….), I was getting a little bit fed up of being stuck in traffic not seen since I left London. So I hopped off and took a stroll down the notorious East End of Glasgow.
I decided to detour away from the throng of hooped spectators and made my way through a place called Bridgeton. The significance of this? Well, do you remember that Celtic kid who got stabbed to death after a Celtic-Rangers game a couple of years ago? It was in Bridgeton, which is a stolen housebrick throw away from Parkhead. I’d heard lots about this place, that it was one of the few places in Glesga where you can still see Orange Order parades, and indeed is so no-go for Celtic fans that on the Irish Celtic Supporters website a map is shown where this place is and put in stark terms to avoid. Needless to say, in an act of sheer and utter stupidity brave defiance and fuelled by a journalistic thirst for knowledge, I made the two mile detour down London Road.
Arriving there, I could see what they meant. It felt a little tense, and despite there being relatively few people about, there were still three coppers looking around for any signs of trouble. Wonderful. Ensuring I wasn’t heading the wrong way, I walked past what can best be described as one of the worst housing estates I have ever seen. Boarded up housing everywhere, wrecked street lights, that sort of thing. I think Celtic Park must be in the worst area I have ever seen around a stadium, though St Mirren’s ground in Paisley comes quite close, Feltham is Wimbledon Village compared to here. No wonder Celtic fans never walk down here – within a 30 yard radius, I counted 3 bits of graffiti advertising the UVF. I don’t think they were asking people to support the Union of Vegetable Farmers either. Keeping my head down, gob shut and watching around for anyone else acting remotely suspicious (no exaggeration either), I finally reached the safety of Parkhead
Now, like Bridgeton, most of Parkhead is what i just described, though instead of the UVF stuff you got a couple of IRA tags to boot. Sadly, this sort of stuff isn’t unusual – you can see graffiti like “PIRA 16” (work it out) in Govan, and it’s obvious why Old Firm games go beyond most club rivalries. Then again, I did see a group of kids riding their bikes in the shadow of Celtic Park, surrounded by yet more boarded up housing stock, most wearing Celtic but one wearing Rangers. I’m sure there’s a lesson there, but I’m not quite sure what.
Social commentary aside, Celtic Park is a pretty impressive stadium. Strangely enough, it’s not as big or as imposing on first impressions as you first think. It whips the arse of just about every other stadia in the UK though, and with the amount of people about it wasn’t going to be empty. There were quite a few Gooners about up from land o’tae Sassenachs (with a couple of Edinburgh Gooners thrown in as well, though not literally) around as well, enjoying the reasonably warm Caledonian air. Pleasantries were being exchanged, including a slightly surreal conversation between two fans of Gaelic football. And I thought my geography was screwed.
There was a little bit of a buzz around the place, more and more people were piling in. Plenty of coaches around the coach park, surrounded by more condemnable housing stock, plenty from Ulster and the Republic to boot, but with some from Wolverhampton as well. The thing about Celtic is that it’s a big club but does seem to have more of a camaraderie than other big clubs, especially compared to people like Man U and the Arse. Like many similar clubs, Celtic suffers from woodworm, namely when they do crap, crowds have fallen to something like 12k, now of course they can fill a 60k stadium most weeks. Although this wasn’t going to be full – there were still tickets being advertised in the papers the day before – it was still more than what many Premiershit clubs would expect for a friendly.
Time was shortening and it was time to enter the arena. Previous comments about Celtic Park feeling smaller than what you imagine should be disregarded. I was on the upper tier, and fuck was it a long way up. I’ve never felt more glad to wolf down diet coke after that little excursion. In sad bastard mode, I excitedly took my seat, which happened to be right at the front of the upper tier. I sat down, looked down and wished I hadn’t….
Vertigo subsiding, it was filling up nicely. Kickoff drew nearer and we were treated to tannoy tunes that sounded like it came from O’Neills in Wimbledon. Funny how you never hear similar tunes in games in the Republic. The teams came up on the scoreboard, and needless to say were totally unreadable. From what I made out, Celtic didn’t have Larsson, Sutton or JH playing. However, the programme did have the fat Welsh one profiled, mainly concentrating on his exploits with the Arse. No mention of us though, probably was embarrased by his brush with us. Plenty Dons fans feel the same come to think of it.
As the tannoy changed from “Grand Old Team” to “YNWA”, the now fullish stadium (about 44k there) rose with arms in the air and scarves waving about. Yup, it was time to sway to the beat of Gerry Marsden. And yes, it’s actually quite impressive in the flesh, though being a friendly, it wasn’t quite the same as those UEFA games last season, or indeed any OF battle. Still, when the teams came out it was pretty noisy, and trust me, when they do the Huddle thing it really does sound like the roof is going to fall off. Good job they weren’t playing Southall though, if they huddle against them they could take out all 11 players in one shot.
As for the game? Well, both teams were mainly full strength, and to be honest, much of it was going through the motions stuff. Celtic can defend, especially Balde, and they made Arsenal’s attack look decidedly ordinary. Up front, without their top strikers, plus John Hartson, Celtic don’t really look like they’re going to repeat the exploits of last season – some nice play to get to the box but there was more accurate shooting in Bridgeton later that night than there was on the Parkhead pitch. Has to be said though, Ray Parlour is a dirty little shit, and when he quits pro football Southall will doubtless be first to aquire his tank-like services.
It was around 20 minutes in when the entertainment value rose two zillion fold. In stumbled a drunk man, spittle out of his mouth and had been quite clearly testing the local Tennents a bit too zealously. This was Celtic’s version to our own Mr Viagra, and from now on will be referred to as Roy McCappel. Taking his seat about 4 seats away from me, he took one look at the action and let rip. Seriously, let rip. Every time a Celtic player took the ball, he shouted “Move” in an enebriated state. Every time an Arsenal player got the ball, his language was a little coarser. And he made Martin O’Neill look placid – suffice to say, he managed to almost start a fight and resisted getting thrown out within 5 minutes of each other. I just hope that this guy and our own Mr Cappel never meet, I shudder to think what would have happened. Then again, considering that the game was being ruined by Arsenal’s tedious offside trap (now there’s a surprise), to quote the guy sitting behind me, “he’s going to be the highlight of today”.
Half time came, and it was 0-0. Whilst Roy McC was still busy yelling abuse to the invisible players on the pitch, I scoured around the stadium. There were some Arse mixed in the Jock Stein stand, though bizzarely a Spurz fan was in there as well. Transpired there were 2.5k Gooners in the ground, who did get a nice ovation when they got introduced before the game. The response they got when they started singing Arsenal during the game wasn’t quite so friendly…
Second half started, and some startling things happened. Firstly, ex-Rangers player Van Bronkwurst or whatever his bloody name is came on for the Arse. Needless to say, every time the ball went to him, the slumber tranformed into the cauldron of hatred that one should expect. Secondly, Roy McC decided to move and give a rather animated description of the game. Well, if you count “shit” every third word as descriptive analysis. Thirdly, there was a bit more action on the pitch. Celtic were starting to find holes in the Arse defence and eventually, it was 1-0. Thanks to Liam Miller, who showed nice control in the box, despite being swarmed over by Sol Campbell swung, connected and the Arse goalkeeper fumbled it into the goal. Cue much cheering and the bizzare spectacle of Roy McC switching alligience to the Arsenal. Then again, he was probably so pissed he thought it was Rangers vs Arsenal instead.
As pre-season friendlies tend to go, it went a little bit flat from then on, both teams look decidedly lacking in match sharpness (after all, being professionals must surely be hard work), but not before Arsenal clawed their way back into it. Basically, a Celtic attack broke down due to some indecision that wouldn’t look out of place in our games. Arsenal snatched it, ran up the field and a concerted effort by two Celtic players managed to put the ball in the back of the net. 1-1 and that’s basically how it stayed. Inbetween getting text updates from sunny South Wales, even Roy McC was lapsing into PISA style “exhaustion”, shall we say.
The game ended and that really was that. Roy McC shook everyone’s hand – mine included – and we all trudged back to our various west Scotland retreats. Some went back to islands westward. Some back to the boarded up flats and tenements, others migrated further afield. And some just went to the pub and probably stayed there.
So what? Well, a few things. Firstly, watching a big club, no matter how much you like them, is different to watching AFCW. Secondly, it is enjoyable to watch, albeit on a differing level, and in a more competitive environment the event could well be something else. And if anyone has an OF ticket, I will liberate one. Thirdly, I think that Celtic (and Rangers) would do well in the Premiership. From what I’ve seen of the Parkhead side, both on telly and in the flesh, they’re not out of their depth. I’ve no idea what would happen to Scottish football should the OF play in England, personally I would like to see the two leagues merged. Aberdeen vs Southampton anyone? But I do suspect that the Prem wouldn’t let both teams in simply because they could well upstage most English teams. There was nothing on show to convince me that Arsenal will win the league, put it that way.
As I trudged back to central Glesga, through yet more poverty-stricken East End streets (why do Celtic fans get the shitty council housing and Rangers fans the better living quarters? I blame the masonic elements of Scottish society), and getting handed a flyer for some republican flute band (which very few other people were taking), I did wonder if such a fixture would be de rigeur in the foreness of time, and if I had seen the future of British soccer. And I have to be honest, I believe it would work. If the authorities let it, but then the FA and SFA have too much to lose, like their jobs and their free tickets.
One final thing, at least I didn’t have to make the agonising decision of supporting a team with John Hartson playing in it.