Review: ‘A Very Different Paradise’ by Tom Campbell
‘And if you know your history’ goes the most famous of the Celtic songs. How about, knowing that history better than most, you decide to have a go at re-writing it – posing the vital question “What if?”
That is the intriguing premise behind the newest book from Celtic writer and historian Tom Campbell. He has taken a ‘sliding doors’ moment in the club’s history and provided a remarkable insight into how Celtic’s post-war era might have taken a completely different course had a single decision been altered.
That this Celtic writer should take a risk in attempting such a novel approach to viewing the club at a critical historic juncture should come as no surprise. His first book, Glasgow Celtic (1945-1970) was published a lifetime ago as far as some supporters are concerned (including yours truly who was born the year it came out) and was one of the first books in which the supporter of a club analysed a single period in the club’s history in a unique and refreshing style. After a hiatus of a few years Tom then forged a memorable partnership with the redoubtable Pat Woods which led to a series of ground-breaking books including the influential The Glory and The Dream and the wonderful, timeless Rhapsody In Green.
But Tom Campbell didn’t take the easy option and rest on his laurels after those successes. For Tears In Argentina he travelled all the way to Buenos Aires and secured interviews with some of the surviving Racing Club players who denied Celtic the title of World Champions over three tumultuous encounters in late 1967. In Celtic’s Paranoia: All in the Mind? he forensically examined the many controversial issues which have involved the club, its support, the game’s governing bodies and the media down the years.
‘A Very Different Paradise’ arose out of a discussion with the doyen of Scottish football historians and writers, Bob Crampsey. The ‘sliding doors’ moment is the day when Scottish international midfielder and serving soldier Matt Busby knocked on the front door at Celtic Park during the early days of World War Two, offering his services to the club he grew up supporting in the village of Orbiston on the outskirts of Bellshill, Lanarkshire.
During the war years, the Celtic board had effectively put the club in cold storage. They were not interested in maintaining a strong squad or taking advantage of the many top English players such as Stanley Matthews and Tommy Lawton (who both turned out for Morton!) who were based in Scotland during the war and allowed to join local teams as guest players. Even though Matt Busby was offering his services to manager Jimmy McStay for free through his desire to wear the hoops, the Celtic board still declined.
Instead Busby went to Hibernian where he played over 40 games and took a hand in coaching the excellent young players that Hibs had at the time who would develop into ‘The Famous Five’ over the next decade. When the war was over Busby was approached by Manchester United to restore their fortunes and within little time he was exceeding expectations as one of the first tracksuit managers, bringing through the ‘Busby Babes’ and making United the second British team to secure the title of Champions of Europe in 1968.
The question that Tom Campbell poses is: what if Busby had been allowed to play for Celtic? What effect would he have had on the young players in the team? What if Celtic’s younger directors – Bob Kelly and Desmond White – had got round the intransigence of chairman Tom White? How would Busby have gelled with the famed international coach Jimmy Hogan who joined the club in the late 1940s? In short – could Matt Busby have done for Celtic in the 1940s what he achieved with Man United in the 1950s?
This is a work of fiction and yet you have to keep reminding yourself of this fact because the story is based on a deep-rooted understanding of how football was organised and played at the time and especially the key characters who were controlling the destiny of Celtic. Having created the scenario, the author then gets to indulge himself by suggesting possible signings and developments with some of the players already at Celtic Park being allowed to achieve their potential. The best insights relate to actual players as well as tactics and the different outcomes that might have been achieved in certain encounters with well-known opponents. The period from 1939-1965 is the least successful in Celtic’s history in terms of silverware. Would that have been the case if Matt Busby had been allowed free rein to develop his coaching talent at Celtic Park and go on to lead the club?
‘A Very Different Paradise’ is a fascinating, insightful and entertaining read. It encourages you to think about football and our club’s history in a completely different way. Fiction does have a place in football writing after all. The real success of this book is the way it brings to life a key era in Celtic history – and convincingly presents alternative outcomes, based on Campbell’s in-depth knowledge of the people involved, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses. I enjoyed it so much I immediately re-read the book after finishing it, trying to separate out the fact from the all-too-convincing fiction. It is a Celtic version of Fantasy Football – but from the ‘40s and ‘50s rather than the ‘90s (which would be ripe for a historical re-write also!)
And if it can help erase memories of the notorious Celtic frontline of ‘The Five Sorrowful Mysteries’ of the late 1940s, this alternative Celtic history is an idea surely worth embracing!
The Shamrock rating: 9/10
The book can be purchased here: https://the-shamrock.net/2019/09/11/a-very-different-paradise-by-tom-campbell/
Listen to an entertaining interview with the author Tom Campbell on A Celtic State of Mind podcast here: https://acsom.net/tom-campbell/
Read David Potter’s review of the book on the Celtic Star website: https://thecelticstar.com/david-potter-reviews-a-very-different-paradise-by-tom-campbell/