Frank Rafters – 1997
Perhaps this match isn’t a game that many people will remember. In fact, I would go so far to say that relatively few folk will have any significant recollection of it, despite over forty-seven thousand packing themselves inside an ever-changing Celtic Park to see it at the time. After all, it was then, and remains to this day, a virtually meaningless affair, at least on the surface. Rangers had all but officially sealed their ninth league title in a row only days earlier, equalling Celtic’s long-cherished record from the 1960s and 1970s, and whilst the mood may have been defiant at Parkhead, it was far from jubilant. Celtic had not won the Championship since 1988, and every solitary one of the Club’s supporters was all too aware that the Bhoys only had one more chance to stop their rivals. Equalling Celtic’s record was one thing, but the prospect of it being bettered by the Ibrox side was unthinkable, and yet, for a while, it was a terrifying possibility.
However, ignoring the previously mentioned apathy regarding the match against Aberdeen, I can say with certainty that the twentieth of April 1997 is a date that I shall never forget. There is, of course, a very good reason for that, as on that day, this six-year-old was lucky enough to have his first taste of the place we call “Paradise.” I sat with my dad in the South Stand, where he had his seat for some sixteen years prior to my first visit, and where he continued to sit until a move to the other side of the field just two years ago.
I remember being overawed by the whole experience: the people, the noise, the sights, the sounds, the smells – everything – and that was before the game had even started. As I stood there prior to kick-off, I can still recall gazing up at the relatively newly constructed North Stand and being truly staggered by its size and colouring. For the record, whilst I was a child I automatically loved anything green and white or anything with the word “Celtic” emblazoned upon it, so to find myself staring at what seemed to be an utterly enormous green stand with six giant white letters spelling out my favourite word was like a vision of heaven for me. Little did I know then that less than ten years later, I would become a season ticket holder and sit within ten rows of the top of the upper tier at every home game.
Anyway, returning to 1997, whilst many people may not have been too excited that day, I was, as I’m sure you can imagine, absolutely ecstatic. The prospect of seeing the team I already adored so much in person was truly mind-blowing. As the sides emerged from the tunnel, I stood on the seat next to my father, holding onto his arm to balance myself, all to catch my first glimpse of the famous Glasgow Celtic, as they strolled out into the spring sunshine before me.
Looking back on it, one of my most enduring impressions of that day was that everything seemed larger then that it does now. At the age of twenty-five, I now stand somewhere around the six feet and three inches mark in terms of height, but then I was of course much smaller. The partially completed stadium seemed vast, and yet the atmosphere somehow felt intimate, and oddly, it still feels similar today.
Focusing on the match itself, my memories of the first goal are as follows – Tosh McKinlay played a long ball forwards through the air towards Jorge Cadete, who proceeded to spring after it, with his hair bouncing behind him in a sight not dissimilar to the modern day Georgios Samaras. Anyway, as he chased down the ball before him, I remember everyone around me leaping to their feet in anticipation, staring towards the far end of the ground where the action was unfolding. Whilst this occurred, time seemed to slow down, and I found myself straining my neck in all directions in search of a gap large enough to see through the crowd of bodies in front of me. Eventually, as if by some incidence of destiny or fate, a small opening appeared just in time for me to watch the Portuguese striker run on to the pass and coolly chip the ball over the oncoming Aberdeen goalkeeper Derek Stillie.
To this day, I can still close my eyes and see the aftermath, as my dad picked me up and hugged me, amidst what I recall as one of the craziest goal celebrations I have ever been a part of. In reality, it was a good, but otherwise ‘normal’ goal, and did not spark anything like the scenes I have witnessed against sides such as AC Milan, Manchester United, Porto and, of course, Rangers. However, to a small Bhoy, it seemed as if the placed had just erupted. Only moments later, for the first time, I was treated to a live rendition of one of my favourite songs:
“There’s only one Jorge Cadete
He puts the ball in the netty,
He’s Portuguese and he scores with ease
Walking in a Cadete wonderland.”
In all honesty, it was simply magnificent. As the match continued, Simon Donnelly made it two-nil to Celtic, before Jorge Cadete scored once again midway through the second half to put the icing on the cake for the victorious Hoops. As I walked out of Celtic Park for the first time, I felt certain that I would return – I was hooked. In truth, I have loved Celtic for as long as I can remember, but I believe (from personal experience at least) that the first time you see them live is something truly special, regardless of what age you happen to be when you have the pleasure of doing so.
In truth, when I shut my eyes and remember that day in 1997, there is a little part of me that wants to well up with a tear or two, and I’m not entirely sure as to why. Perhaps the raw emotion involved has stuck with me, or perhaps it is simply because the entire experience retains a special place as one of my happiest memories. To wander up Kerrydale Street (or the modern ‘Celtic Way’) and watch Celtic play was a tremendous privilege – and it still is. If I am ever blessed with the opportunity to repeat this feat not only with my father beside me, but with a child (or children) of my own in tow then I will, for those few moments, hold a place as one of the happiest people on the face of the Earth, because it will mean more to me than I can express with mere words. People with no love of football or Celtic Football Club may, understandably, find this idea somewhat difficult to grasp. However, I have no doubts that the vast majority of you reading this will know exactly what I mean.
Anyway, from that day onwards, I have always held a particular liking for matches against Aberdeen. I suppose the sight of the two sides’ kits takes me back on every occasion upon which I see the two teams face each other, although I must confess that the feeling isn’t quite so nice whenever they beat us.
In hindsight, I imagine I bored both my mum and my late gran to tears by talking endlessly about my first steps at Paradise in the days following my trip to Parkhead. Hell, it’s almost twenty years later as I write this, and yet here I am, still talking about it, albeit with a slightly larger vocabulary and an audience who haven’t heard this story before.
However, one thing I had always regretted was the fact that I did not have a copy of the programme from my first game. I imagine my dad bought me one, but either it got thrown away over the years or simply lost to the family’s ‘land that time forgot’ – the loft. Regardless, a few months after I started the “Maley’s Bhoys” website I put a request out on Twitter to see if, by any chance, someone still had that programme. Amazingly, it didn’t take long before one kind hearted soul contacted me and posted it through from his personal collection, entirely free of charge. Rest assured, I treasure that programme to this day, and will continue to do so as long as I live, having read it from cover to cover on several occasions.
As I have said, most supporters won’t remember that day in 1997, and in the vast majority of history books it will be classed as nothing more than an average game. However, it will remain forever sacred to me, for it was a day when I had the privilege of combining two of my favourite things in life, watching the world-renowned Celtic play, and spending a bit of quality time with the greatest fans on Earth.
Frank’s first game was Celtic v Aberdeen at Celtic Park on 20th April 1997.
Celtic won 3-0 (Goalscorers: Cadete 24, 63; Donnelly 51) Attendance: 47,293
The Celtic team was: Kerr, Boyd, McKinlay, McNamara, Stubbs, O’Donnell (Hay – 76), Di Canio (McLaughlin – 69), Hannah, Donnelly, Thom, Cadete
Frank is the author of two excellent Celtic books ‘Uniquely Celtic’ and ‘Standing On The Shoulders of Giants’
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