Paradise re-found

Confessions of a lapsed Celtic supporter.

By Ronnie McCluskey

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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In May, I’m asked if I want to go to Celtic Park to see ‘us’ play Aberdeen. Of course I’m up for it – mainly because I’ve never been to the ground.

Football fans, in the main, are born rather than made. As a child, an affinity for a particular club is inculcated in you by your peers, both directly and indirectly. Usually it is a father figure who lights the torch which you, as a youngster, grasp and carry forward, his partisanship calcifying in your own bones. This was certainly the case with me.

My father is from Parkhead and, having entered the world four years before the Lisbon Lions etched their names in the history books, there was never much doubt about which team he’d support. Born into a large Catholic family, one of 10 children, he attended games regularly in his youth, lifted over the turnstiles by generous older chaps. ‘Can you gies a lift, big man?’ was all you had to ask, and providing your chosen fan wasn’t in a foul mood you were in, to prowl the stands and find yourself a perfect vantage.

In circumstances that were to repeat themselves a few decades later, my dad’s support for Celtic drifted somewhat in his teenage years: it was then that he fell in love with music and started pouring his energies into banging the drums, plying his trade in a number of hard rock bands who gigged in pubs throughout the East End of Glasgow. He would never say he stopped being “for Celtic” but unlike his brothers he no longer watched every game with rapture or kept up with the transfer market. He became, it’s fair to say, a casual fan – like the taxi driver with whom you discuss football on a drunken Saturday night, a conversation which terminates after 90 seconds when you realise said driver has misrepresented himself as a knowledgeable scholar of the game.

My dad was 25 when I was born in 1988. He had a youthful face, a dark moustache and lank jet-black hair that came down over his ears in the customary rock style. He was still playing the drums then, hopeful of getting a big break. Although he could no longer be classed as a Celtic diehard, the old faith still flickered and was passed on to me: I grew up supporting ‘the Tic’, idolatrous of the stars of the day even if we were too indigent to attend any games. (I also had a sideline in Serie A, borne of watching Channel 4’s unmissable Football Italia every Sunday morning.)

The season that stands out in my mind, for obvious reasons, is Wim Jansen’s title-winning 1997-98 campaign. Not only were Celtic able to stop Rangers winning 10 league titles in a row but Henrik Larsson joined the team that year, the Swede quickly settling into life at Parkhead by bagging 16 goals. Nine-year-old me took to Larsson, as did so many other Celtic fans, and I also admired our stalwart captain Tom Boyd and flashy winger Regi Blinker.

Can I recall precisely the style of football Celtic played to deny Rangers a record-breaking triumph? No. What I can remember is curly-haired, vaguely cherubic Jansen hoisting the cup aloft, liking the Bumble Bee strip and, amid the joy of winning the league, retaining a sense of bitter grievance over the departures of Jorge Cadete, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo Di Canio. The swashbuckling trio had scored 64 goals between 1995 and 1997 and their creative three-pronged attack was a joy to watch.

Although 1998 is most luminous in my memory, even if the glow doesn’t render the fine details any clearer, my earliest Celtic memory is probably April 1, 1996, when the Portuguese striker Cadete deftly lifted the ball over the head of Aberdeen’s keeper to punctuate a 5-0 romp at Celtic Park. I remember being stunned by such razzmatazz as I watched the match on TV, and later I found myself sketching a drawing of the moment Cadete expertly knocked the ball over the hapless keeper’s head. It might be in a shoebox in my parents’ house, buried like a relic deep in a cupboard.

Skip forward to December 5, 2001. On the eve of my 13th birthday I watch, agonised, as Celtic crash out of the UEFA Cup, losing on penalties to Valencia. I’m too old to cry, I scold myself, as tears roll unimpeded down my callow face and the BBC pundits conduct a post-mortem. Unbelievably, Larsson missed a penalty. Larsson! It was a crushing blow to see that team lose in such cruel circumstances; I’d felt we had a genuine chance to go all the way, with players like Mjällby, Petrov, Lambert, Moravčík, Sutton and Larsson all hitting their stride in a treble-winning season.

Two years later, an almost identical team would spirit us to the final in Seville, and a blaze-of-glory 3-2 defeat to Mourinho’s Porto. Martin O’Neill’s Celtic side were a pleasure to follow, his 3-5-2 formation letting us play a forward-looking, free-flowing style of football. There was a swagger and a sureness in that squad’s performances.

Even before O’Neill made his exit, however, my attention had begun to wander. Not having Sky television meant missing lots of games and my interest in another sport – boxing – began to take hold. In truth, the Sweet Science had been luring me into the eye of its savage storm ever since Mike Tyson demolished Frank Bruno in 1995, but it was only when Lennox Lewis claimed the undisputed heavyweight title in 1999 that I started taking a proper interest. By the time the Bhoys came up short in Seville I was boxing daft, following the careers of multi-weight world champions such as Roy Jones Jr. and Oscar de la Hoya. I couldn’t help but marvel at the way ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley threw a five-punch combination in the blink of an eye or wonder how Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera could simultaneously be both merciless and controlled. In November 2003 I donned the gloves myself, boxing three rounds in a charity exhibition with a spar-mate from my gym, Blantyre Miners’ Welfare Amateur Boxing Club. I was hooked on a new drug.

Football fell by the wayside to the extent that I stopped watching games altogether, holing up in my room tuned into grainy old fight footage – Ali, Durán, Leonard, Argüello – when I wasn’t at university or in the gym. If asked, I would continue to say I supported Celtic but the claim could bear no scrutiny; eventually I admitted that I didn’t care about football, repudiating the whole sport with a lazy wave of the hand. Sometimes I mentioned that I used to support Celtic, but it was with the same dispassionate air of a person confiding that they used to smoke cigarettes.

I boxed competitively until 2007, the Strachan era passing me by while many of my old heroes – Lennon, Balde, Petrov, Sutton, Hartson – still turned out for the Hoops. Within my realm no-one followed football closely: the boys in the gym had eyes only for the squared circle, and when talk turned to sport, thunderous knockouts were the glorious moments we excitedly re-lived.

Nakamura? I barely saw him hit a ball. Samaras? I knew he was Greek but that’s about it.

Only occasionally would any sense of partiality return. Once, memorably, it was during an Old Firm game in 2011: the game in which Scott Brown infamously eyeballed El Hadji Diouf after scoring, a pugnacious ‘Mon then!’ moment after the pair had clashed throughout the match. I was watching the TV surrounded by Rangers fans, one of whom rose to her feet and started loudly hurling expletives at Brown, whom she evidently despised. As the air coloured and her cohorts joined the chorus I came to the player’s aid, surprising myself with the staunchness of my defence. Was it a temporary resurrection of passion or a simple objection to the girl’s vile outburst? I wasn’t sure, but either way I paid little attention to football for several more years.

It is 2014 and my new girlfriend is a Celtic fan. For the first time since my primary school days I am in close and regular proximity to a committed supporter, one who has attended more games than she can count. Gradually, by some strange process of osmosis, new life is breathed into the corpse of my former Celtic-mad self. While still hypnotised by boxing (running through a list of complaints, the sum of which provided irrefutable evidence of the relationship’s doom, an ex-girlfriend had spat “the fucking boxing obsession” with a kind of grim zeal), I find that there remains an ingress in my heart for football. For the first time in a decade, I start paying an interest in my old team.

It is not as if a light-switch has been flicked; it’s a slow burn. In May, I’m asked if I want to go to Celtic Park to see ‘us’ play Aberdeen. Of course I’m up for it – mainly because I’ve never been to the ground and owe my younger self a chance to see the Hoops up close, to sample the atmosphere at Paradise. It doesn’t disappoint, and not just because we (the pronoun is suddenly stronger, I notice) coast to a 5-2 victory: the atmosphere is all it’s cracked up to be and more. The pitch is immaculate and the jubilation among the supporters, with whom I feel an instant, irresistible camaraderie, ripples like a vast, encompassing green and white flag. I am in my element.

Since that day at Parkhead I’ve followed the Hoops to Manchester, Munich and, er, Motherwell, and I’ve watched them beguile a string of Premiership teams at Celtic Park. Suddenly I’m a supporter once more, and what a time to be one. Brendan Rodgers has the team playing an attack-oriented brand of football that’s not a million miles away from the style O’Neill instilled: while O’Neill had Agathe, Thompson and Petrov, Rodgers has Sinclair, Roberts and Forrest blazing down the wings; where O’Neill relied on Lennon and Lambert to aggressively patrol midfield and find openings, Rodgers’ trusty generals are Brown and Armstrong. I’m not going to labour the point and compare Dembele and Griffiths to Larsson or Sutton, but watching Rodgers’ men go on a tear reminds me of the unadulterated joy I experienced when watching the Bhoys claim the treble in 2001.

Interestingly, my revived interest in Celtic has caused my father to sit up and take more notice of the goings-on at his boyhood club. When we visited Parkhead in 2015, it was the first time he’d watched a game in the flesh since the 1970s. Sitting alongside him for the 3-3 Europa League draw with Inter Milan is a memory I’ll treasure for the rest of my days.

It is true that football fans are usually born, not made, but it’s also true that the spell can wear off and work its magic anew years later. However, I do not foresee my support faltering again. Like a lost wayfarer who has returned to a familiar trail, I will stay the course and follow my team come what may. Hail Hail.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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