This last few weeks it’s been hard to watch Celtic. The romance and the ambition and the vision have all been stripped away, writes Donal Óg Cusack.
Two weeks before I made my debut for Cork in 1999, I went to Jimmy Barry-Murphy with what I regarded as a very serious problem.
To be fair to Jimmy, he understood the nature of the problem, and he knew how to handle it. He said to go ahead and do what I needed to do. He said it was probably best to just keep quiet about it afterwards. I saw where he was coming from and agreed. That was the way to handle it.
It was a delicate business. If I were managing a team now, and a young fella came to me with the same problem, I know I wouldn’t so understanding. It wasn’t a weekend of mental calm and preparation I was thinking of. Back in 1999, I needed to go to the Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Rangers. No place for faint hearts.
Danny Wallace scored the only goal of the game for Rangers. Messed my head up.
I think I first went to Parkhead when I was about 17. Neil Reilly, a man I was friendly with from around the town, was big into Celtic. He had pedigree. His father Eddie, whose father before him had emigrated from Armagh to Scotland, was born in Glasgow.
Neil took me over there, just the two of us, one weekend. I was hooked.
After that sometimes I went six, seven, eight times a season. We went in groups. Buses from Cloyne. Buses run by the Alley Bar. Any assortment of fellas piling in. Shakey. Pa. Poundie. Harry. Cathal. Fran. The Chemist. Smurf.
Have to drop a name in this paragraph. Roy Keane came to speak to us one night after Cork training around the time he played for Celtic. He was great and hung around for a couple of hours afterwards answering our questions. While getting him to sign a sliotar for Neil, and knowing he’d be absolutely fascinated by my life, I told him I enjoyed going to Celtic. He looked at me and said are you there for the football or the craic. I thought about asking him the same question! Hadn’t the nerve though. I gave him a Cork answer. Bit of both boy, bit of both. When I thought about it later, it was true.
Smurf was our spiritual leader. I think he worshipped Celtic more than Neil did. Smurf was a great corner- forward for the club back in the day, he got his name from an old hat he used to wear but he was just as famous for nearly always wearing a Celtic 1988 centenary jersey which had a Celtic cross in the crest.
I remember one evening in Cloyne meeting him in the street. The boys had gone to Glasgow and I thought Smurf had gone with them.
“What’s the story?”
“They wouldn’t let me on the flight.”
He was heartbroken. He’d had to get a bus home from Dublin Airport.
“I forgot the passport. I wouldn’t mind but I had this with me.”
And he fished out a brown envelope and a cutting from the Imokilly People with a big picture of himself in action playing for Cloyne. If you wanted identity that was Smurf’s identity. A bhoy who hurled for Cloyne.
We used like heading off on Friday. Getting into Glasgow on a Friday evening. I used to love putting on the runners, jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, some cash in the pocket and away. Freedom. We used to go down the Gallowgate or to Gorbals Cross. Usually into the Brazen Head and sometimes into a nightclub above the Brazen Head called Durty Nellies.
Typical Durty Nellies story. We’re sitting one night, the Chemist and myself, at a small round table which is overcrowded with green Heineken bottles. There is a sign behind the bar that says Save Your Teeth Use a Brazen Head Bottle Opener. There’s a small, innocent-looking woman sitting beside us and every minute or two she leans over, takes a bottle off our table and throws it backwards over her head. It’s too noisy to hear the sound of any breaking glass, and the place is too packed for any off the bottles to hit the floor anyway. Each one of the bottles she launches just hits somebody square in the head. Mostly the people who get hit on the head take a gulp from whatever drink they are holding and ask the person they are with a question or two. Did I just get hit on the head with a bottle? Yeah, I thought I did alright. Am I bleeding? Fair enough so.
Myself and the Chemist are watching all this and wondering how it will unfold. The Chemist is a fella of fairly nervous disposition and he’s trying to see where the bottles land without looking like the guilty party if a bottle hits somebody and the victim looks over and meets the Chemist’s eye.
Finally a bottle hits the head of a person standing just behind the woman and he sees clearly where it has come from. The man walks over and starts trying to beat the head off the woman. You’ve never seen so many people trying to work out whether they should do the decent thing and save the woman or whether they should just hope this is an end to the steady rain of Heineken bottles.
Another night there was a bit of an all in. Good few Cloyne lads in there. Not involved. Directly. We got swept out by bouncers. Directly. The steel doors slammed behind us. Stop.
Saturday’s and we would be up early enough, down the Gallowgate, find somewhere good to listen to the music, wander down to Paradise. Always cold, going to get colder. Watch the game. Sometimes the game would be the worst part of the weekend.
I remember another character known only to me as Mossy (Mossy Mullins from Killenaule, not the start of a Limerick!) from Tipp or Mossy Tipp as he was in my phone. I got friendly with Mossy and the owner of a bar where he used to drink. Jim Cullen from the Montrose Bar. The Montrose Bar was on the River Clyde. I remember some nights ending in the Montrose Bar with us trying to strike a sliotar over the Clyde. The lads were good friends with a man called Andy Cameron, the announcer at Ibrox, actor (Taggart, the High Road), comedian and a fellow who had a radio show in the city. I ended up inviting them to Cork’s post-All-Ireland dinner that year. Andy came to the match and the dinner and he loved it. He starting waxing on about it on radio the following weekend.
There was nearly a riot with Rangers fans outraged with all this talk of Cork hurling polluting the airwaves. I think a lot of Rangers fans follow Kilkenny.
The European nights were great events in the city. I remember being there for Bayern Munich. For Blackburn Rovers. That was a time when the football seemed to give Glasgow some kind of validation as a significant place on the map. Bayern came and struggled to get a 0-0 draw. We went away mad that we hadn’t beaten them.
I liked Glasgow. It always felt a bit pinched but warm and sentimental. In the Brazen Head there was an old jersey hanging with the signatures of all the Lisbon Lions scrawled on it. That European Cup win in 1967 with a team and subs who all (except one) came from within 10 miles of Glasgow. Parkhead seemed back then to be within touching distance. I always went to the European games or followed them believing that Celtic could go all the way, that the line from 1967 could be taken up again. That final in Lisbon, the Inter goalie had to make 13 saves, Celtic hit the crossbar twice and had nearly 40 attempts on goal.
I believed in the sentimental part of Celtic, the part of being home away from home as we sank into the Gallowgate of a Saturday but I believed in that other part of Celtic (and Rangers) being big clubs who could drive each other onto the great things.
Not many lads go to Paradise from Cloyne anymore. I miss it. Austerity came and they shrunk the football club. Downsized it. Shame. I think of those European nights back when Martin O’Neill was in charge and you had Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton, John Hartson, King Henrik Larsson, Jackie McNamara. Serious players, and then guys like Bobo Balde and Didier Agathe who seemed to get carried along by the passion and ambition and grow into better players than they actually were.
Glasgow is a city with a great past behind it but those times with Rangers spending like drunken sailors and Celtic trying to keep up without being silly about it gave a lot of people an escape from the real world. There’s a lot of tut-tutting about the sectarianism and the bitter nature of the rivalry and a lot of times things did cross the lines of what is acceptable but for those 90 minutes or so, when they were hating each other or loving their own, the hard cruel world that had screwed them all over was forgotten about.
This last few weeks it’s been hard to watch Celtic for that reason. The romance and the ambition and the vision have all been stripped away. With Rangers out of the picture, Celtic could have used their access to Europe to build a team that might reach past the Champions League group stages every now and then.
Instead, they have gone small, and the humiliations to Legia Warsaw and Maribor have been the result.
It’s hard to imagine that the debate on Scottish independence isn’t taking place at exactly the wrong time, with football which was for so long a part of the country’s fierce identity having gone into such decline.
The last time we went to Glasgow, we didn’t know it would be the last time. I remember we got soaked to the skin three times that weekend. It was right on the edge of austerity, that trip and I can’t even remember who we saw play.
No buses head out of Cloyne anymore and when I meet the fellas, we talk sadly about Celtic as if they are in the past tense. Pa Condon has passed and Smurf, my old buddy, is above in the graveyard in Cloyne now too. “A true Bhoy’s fan” it says on the cross above him.
I was thinking of him and those bygone days this week. Smurf’s hat and the Celtic cross on his heart. There’s no room for dreamers on balance sheets and asset-stripping plans. I hope that someday the romance will come back and we’ll start going again.
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