“The Celtic are blessed with having a following that simply defy the elements, whose enthusiasm for the club is never lukewarm.” Scottish Referee, September 7th 1891
“Fans are advised that flags and banners will not be permitted inside McDiarmid Park, following an agreement between the police and the clubs.” The Courier, December 21st 2013
This season was always going to be a critical juncture in Celtic’s history. Our historical rivals long deceased. Us clocking up one championship flag after another without any significant challenge. Out of Europe before Christmas (though money banked) and attendances on the slide for a competition lacking any . . . competition. If ever there was a need for unity among the Celtic community of club, players and fans it is now.
Instead we have open conflict as well as fear and loathing. Talk of boycotts, non-renewed season cards and general disillusion fills the message boards and blogs. A disastrous and frankly embarrassing defeat in Barcelona has left us deflated, no matter how we try to play it down. Thoughts wander back to three years ago to another difficult time for both club and support. A humiliating loss in the Scottish Cup semi-final to Ross County, hot on the heels of the sacking of Tony Mowbray, looked like the beginning of the end for the interim manager Neil Lennon. You may remember that, in the close season, the club organised open meetings attended by Chief Executive Peter Lawwell and Neil Lennon, aware of the widespread discontent, a need to re-connect and also with a careful eye on season book renewals. At the meeting at Celtic Park the atmosphere was positive and there was clear support for the Lurgan man being given the manager’s post on a permanent basis. The most articulate and rousing speech from the floor that night ended with a ringing endorsement of Lennon and this came from Eddie Toner, known to a lot of those present as a representative down the years of the Celtic Supporters Association and the Celtic Trust.
Eddie has long been associated with the Denniston No.1 CSC and enjoys a good reputation and profile among the Celtic support. He was one of the people involved in the successful project to have a statue of Brother Walfrid created and placed at the main entrance to Celtic Park. It is worth remembering what Eddie said the day that Walfrid’s statue was unveiled as it struck a chord with the large group of people who turned up for the unveiling:
Success on the football pitch is important to any club. But is it crucial to its existence? I would argue that in Celtic’s case it should never be. Success can be measured in different ways and how it is achieved can vary also. Walfrid gave us a vision, it was Christian, it was charitable, it was about never forgetting our roots and indeed, maintaining them. It was about being happy, about celebrating and about making our fellow man and woman welcome. It was about openness and inclusiveness. Many Celtic supporters do not have their roots in the same land or religion as the majority of us do, but they are an equal part of our family and are just as proud of our origins and history, and of Brother Walfrid, as the members of the Irish Diaspora are. The continuation of these fundamental principles, laid down by Walfrid, should, in my opinion, be seen every bit as much a measure of success as the footballing pinnacles we reached in places like Lisbon, Milan and Seville.
The announcement that Celtic fans will not be “allowed” to take flags and banners into the Boxing Day fixture at McDiarmid Park has proven a final straw for Eddie who said yesterday on Twitter: “Over 40 years following Celtic home and away. A lifetime spent organising weekends around where we were playing but I’ve now had enough.” As a support we can’t afford to lose people of the calibre of Eddie Toner. There are a number of issues which led to this decision which Eddie has outlined on his Twitter posts. Read them. A development like this should be ringing bells inside and outside Celtic Park. Work needs to be done by the club to resolve these issues. When disillusionment among committed supporters results in decisions like that, action is a must.
A football club needs support. Players certainly do. But, on occasions, a support needs backing, encouragement, direction from the club itself. When fans are attacked by foreign plain clothes policemen. When fans are savaged relentlessly on the front pages of the country’s tabloids for ‘riots’ that weren’t riots. When it is suggested by an opponent club or police officers – in a ground where there has never been any instances of misconduct by the Celtic support – that there should be a ban on flags and banners.
Without that support from within a club, a gap is created. Into the empty space flows distrust, disharmony, disunity. Fans become suspicious of the role and behaviour of the club’s administrators. If there’s no evidence of the club supporting the fans they begin to wonder, loudly in this age of social media: if they’re not for us, are they actually acting against us? And allegations of club collusion with media and police get given mileage.
The club needs to stop the rot here. It is not just attendances – the atmosphere at League matches in Celtic Park in recent weeks should be a major cause of concern. It was the club who gave the Green Brigade a dedicated space in section 111 (being well aware what the ultra group’s political stance was) and they quickly provided a breath of fresh air in what had become a fairly sterile stadium at most domestic games. The club have now taken that space from them – and a physical void has now been created in Celtic Park. There has to be discussions now on a way forward between the club and the ultras. The Green Brigade aren’t without critics in the wider support but recent events have been shamelessly exploited to bring this group of fans to its knees and discourage them from collectively returning to Celtic Park. This campaign won’t succeed. It was apparent to the twenty odd thousand who made their way to Celtic Park on Saturday that you can brand certain fans “hooligans”, “neds” and “trouble-makers” as much as you like – but when they turn up outside the ground for a match they’re banned from in order to collect and redistribute food for the poor of the East End of Glasgow, it simply reaffirms that these are dedicated supporters. In the Celtic tradition. They’re not going anywhere – because they form part of the lifeblood of Celtic.
The idea that Celtic fans are to be stopped from taking flags and banners to a game is ridiculous – almost as ridiculous as the suggestion from some fans that this edict should be obeyed. It won’t and neither should it be. Flags and banners are a representation of who we are as Celtic supporters. Similarly with songs. To deny a group of football fans the right to display their colours and legends is a step beyond a step too far. Any attempt to do should be treated with the outright contempt it deserves. Celtic fans will do this without hostility and without “playing into the hands” of our new national police force keen on bolstering their arrest figures – we’ve shown the way plenty of times in the past to confront our enemies with humour and enterprise.
There is of course a new banner at Celtic Park this season that hasn’t been seen before. One that the club have introduced. It takes up a large section of the Lisbon Lions upper tier and is designed to cover up the fact that those seats are empty and effectively that part of the stadium is closed because of an absence of supporters to fill it. If things keep going the way they have been, these may be the only banners we’ll be seeing at home games. This could become part of an unfolding nightmare scenario of Paradise Lost: you’re sitting watching the game in your green seat but the experience is a pale imitation of what you remember watching Celtic to be. The team are in green and white but other things have changed. There’s little noise for one. You’re only off your feet for a few seconds to celebrate the odd goal. Singing is rare. Singing anything about Ireland, the land from which your club and support originate from, is even rarer. The ground has lost its vibrancy and colour as well – very few flags or banners. Tricolours are barely on show, shamrocks and harps less in evidence than they once were. But the new guy sitting along from you seems to be enjoying himself, the open spaces and the general quiet. He looks not unlike Pat Nevin. In fact he has Pat Nevin’s exact same nasal whine. And then you realise that this anodyne, lukewarm experience is what supporting Celtic has been reduced to: Hibs – without the bus fare.
Our greatest manager famously said “Football without the fans is nothing.” Celtic will always have supporters, of that there is no doubt. But Celtic without a vibrant, noisy and colourful support is not the same Celtic. It has been this way since our brake clubs blazed a trail over a century ago in introducing organised away day travel to world football – with their banners flying high on the way to, and inside, the grounds where Celtic played. It was the same in Lisbon in ’67. Love Street in ’86. Seville in 2003.
Unity is Celtic’s strength, always has been. We need to keep flying our colours proudly. We need supporters like Eddie Toner. We need to keep the faith.
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Issue 1 of The Shamrock – Celtic Retro fanzine on sale now. Can be bought online via Paypal – details here: https://theshamrockglasgow.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-shamrock-issue-1-on-sale-now-only-3/
The fanzine can also be bought on the day of the game at the Glasgow Programmes stall behind the Lisbon Lions Stand and from various sellers around the main entrance points to Celtic Park.
Also available from Calton Books on London Road and Casa Rebelde in Dublin.