‘The First Game With My Father’ by Michael Tierney
A Story of Love, Loss, Family and Football
There are lots of little blessings that you come across in life. When I first picked this book up and read the blurb on the back I thought this was right up my street: a son writing about his father’s life, a memoir of an entire family, with football as the theme running through it. When it dawned on me that both the author (Michael) and the father (John) are Celtic supporters and that the club at the heart of this book was my club, I was at first excited and, by the time I finished reading it, felt a little blessed.
This is quite simply an extraordinary book. The ordinariness of the lives of the Tierney family from Bishopbriggs is something that many who grew up in Glasgow or the west of Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s will be familiar with; but in the hands of Michael Tierney the family’s story, and especially that of his Maryhill-born John, becomes extraordinary. While John was a craftsman when it came to handling electricity, the son is a craftsman of words. His mastery of language leaves you begging for more. He can give form to feelings and emotions that are often very difficult to capture. Here he describes how he found the Celtic scarf he had worn as a child:
I knew my scarf so well.
It had a Celtic FC Supporters Club badge, a Celtic FC badge, with a green shamrock, Celtic FC in the shape of an arrow, and two conjoined circles with Celtic and The Bhoys on them. I had sewn all of them on myself when I was about nine or ten. I’d sat down with a needle and thread and the patches looked like someone wearing boxing gloves had stitched them.
The scarf had power. It was like a rare insect tacked through the thorax to a board.
‘I haven’t seen it. Sorry pet.’
‘I’ll pop round and have a look.’
Three hours later I found it in the left, hidden in a box we had set aside after freeing the space of my father’s stuff. It was a little dusty and smelly and the wool had seen better days. But it was mine. My Celtic scarf from childhood.
I hadn’t worn it in years. It was too short to wear to everyday matches without looking self-consciously like an overgrown nine-year-old boy, but I just wanted it with me and then I could pass it on to the children. Totems everywhere. The scarf was part of something. A speck from my father’s past.
Michael Tierney cut his teeth as a journalist on the Scottish Catholic Observer before joining the Evening Times and The Herald. His despatches from around the globe for the Sunday Herald magazine brought him to the attention of a wider audience and he went on to win a number of valued awards for his writing including the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.
His gift for incisive description is demonstrated when he outlines how it felt being a Celtic fan during the 1990s, up until the arrival of the Blessed Martin:
Rangers had been going through almost a decade of domination and every Celtic fan felt dread to their marrow. You could tell just by looking them. You could tell by the shame-filled eyes. You could tell by the way no one looked directly at each other back then. It was just too painful. It would have been easier walking around with a dead penguin around your neck.
Rangers fans, on the other hand, strutted. They marched.
My father always told us to watch the way we walked. We were never to march. It was too much like them. We weren’t invading Poland.
. . . .
Then came Martin O’Neill.
If he had been a child he would have arrived at Celtic on a bike without his hands on the handlebars. Not a one-handy. A no-handy. He wasn’t scared. And he certainly wasn’t scared of Rangers. O’Neill came to Celtic from Leciester City in June 2000 and decided, quite emphatically, to stop the godawful rot. No longer would Celtic be bullied on the park and no longer would they haemorrhage goals. Celtic fans stopped sitting in the damp and gloom of Parkhead with their hands over their eyes. The worry left their faces.
The writing is laced with humour and localised references which illustrate the Celtic supporting experience, as with the pub which remains central to many fans. Quins in Bishopbriggs is where his father drank for many years:
The men never called it a bar. It was just Quins. It was down the road at the Cross. In the rough-and-tumble world of men and football, Quins was the place where Celtic men assembled to discuss their lives and their problems and their hardships and their work and anything really that men talk about away from their wives: which is to say, everything else apart from their wives. Drink coursed through the place like a glorious green river.
The barmen were dour and miserable on a good day and if they told their customers to get lost it was considered a fairly amicable conversation. Good service was nothing to be particularly proud of and the men were happy with a few pints, a whisky and a conversation that touched only on football and politics and religion and work. They called it a Celtic shop. The appearance of a stranger was regarded with utmost suspicion. The interloper was either a bluenose or a policeman and frequently both.
The story is book-ended by two Celtic games but it is much, much more than a book about Celtic or football. It touches on identity and politics and sociology and history and takes you to Barra and Maryhill and Seville and Bishopbriggs and a few war zones as well for good measure. It gives the unique world perspective of John Tierney, who lost his own father at an early age in World War Two, as he and his wife Cathie bring up their large family. John’s relationship with Ireland and how it differs from those of his children will strike a chord with many who read the book. He liked to call his son ‘a souper’ when he felt he was straying too much from his own path.
John with baby Michael
This book is as times a biography of the son as much as the father. From a Celtic perspective, there’s a lot in the book to excite interest: his interviews with the Lisbon Lions and Henrik Larsson in his hometown in Helsingborg; the account of his trip to Seville with friends and family and also his visit to the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon with his six year old son. His conversations with Jinky’s widow Agnes will live long in the reader’s memory also.
Ultimately it is about the life of John Tierney seen through the eyes of one of his children from the game against Sporting Lisbon in 1983 up to a return visit to Celtic Park in 2013. That life took an alarming twist in 2002 and the impact of what happened to John and his close family is what drives this book on – and inspired the son to write the father’s story. It is a difficult but necessary and enlightening read.
John and Michael back in Paradise
The son’s account of that first game with his father – and his brother Iain and his father’s pal George – in November 1983 when Tommy Burns turned in the performance of his career to help overturn a 2-0 goal first-leg deficit is one that will chime with many who were in Paradise that night with the Tierneys:
The shouts of the fans came swirling around the ground as they sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and we joined in with our scarves waving about our heads.
‘Christ, John,’ said George, when he saw Tommy Burns galloping through the midfield, as if bandits were chasing him. ‘Tommy’s flying.’
A wee man shouted out, ‘He’s got mair moves than a monkey on ten foot of grapevine!’ Laughter all around.
Celtic attacked from the beginning. Tommy Burns twisted and Tommy Burns turned. That’s what they sang. My father liked Tommy because he was religious and he believed in Our Lady and the intercession of all the saints. I liked him because he was a number ten, like me.
The red-headed midfield maestro, with his neatly parted hair, scored after only seventeen minutes. But I missed it going in because I was looking up at the sky and listening to all the noise around me. I knew he’d scored because the whole ground erupted and my father jumped, along with George, and then he lifted Iain up and he smiled and shouted, ‘You beauty. You wee cracker.’
The Shamrock rating: 8/10
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The book can be purchased from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/First-Game-My-Father/dp/0552779636/ref=sr_1_1_twi_2_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1436878855&sr=1-1&keywords=the+first+game+with+my+father
Martin Greig interviews author Michael Tierney in Bishopbriggs Library about the book: https://audioboom.com/boos/2682041-the-first-game-with-my-father-michael-tierney
Read The Shamrock’s other reviews here: https://theshamrockglasgow.wordpress.com/celticreviews/