by Private: Harry McGrath

Paradise Relived

June 9, 2012 | by Private: Harry McGrath

My great-grandfather’s name was Thomas Dunn. When Celtic became ‘Celtic Football and Athletic Company Limited’ in 1897, he took shares in it. Dunn did not have many years to enjoy his new investment. He died in 1903.

Thirty years later his daughter Margaret Dunn asked what happened to his shares. She received a letter from Celtic Park in August 1933, a scanned copy of which I have before me. The letter recognizes that Thos. Dunn owned 21 shares but that these were transferred to club chairman J.H. McLaughlin in January 1904 and ‘he has therefore no other interest in this Company now.’ It is signed ‘W. Maley’, ‘Secy’.

Margaret was not satisfied. A more conciliatory letter arrived the following month, again signed by Maley. The share transfer, he explains, was done by Thomas’s executors and McLaughlin who received them ‘was the chairman of the club at that time’. He adds, ‘Your Father was, like many others of our members, one of a Band of Catholics who knew each other in the East End in these days & knew Mr McLaughlin intimately. The whole transaction was a genuine one. I will gladly shew you the entries if you happen to be this way at any time.’

Maley’s tone has set off conspiracy theories down the years. Perhaps he protesteth too much. The envelopes are preserved as well as the letters. His first correspondence is sent to c/o McGrath in Northburn St, Glasgow but the address on the second envelope is in Yorkshire. He must have realized by then that ‘Miss Dunn’ was elderly and writing from a distance and the chances of her popping round to Parkhead for a dekko at the books were fairly slender.

Is this a small domestic example of the financial shenanigans obliquely referenced by the Glasgow Observer in 1892 when it said that Celtic had moved away from its charitable roots and was now ‘a mere business, in the hands of publicans and others’? The process certainly contrasts with that adopted by an intrepid character called David Low ninety years later when he went around Ireland buying up shares and voting rights to facilitate the acquisition of Celtic by Fergus McCann.

McLaughlin has four pages in Kevin McCarra’s latest book about Celtic, Maley a chapter. The book is a ‘biography’ of the club told through the lives of nine men closely associated with it. They provide the spine of a narrative that wanders all over the place though with fascinating results. The chapter on Glasgow newspaper seller ‘Flax’ Flaherty, for instance, says little about him but a lot about sectarianism.

The desire to shed light on the mystery of my great-grandfather’s shares is not the main reason I embrace books like this one, though it is interesting to note that the McLaughlin of McCarra’s account is a character that seems capable of sharp practice. He was a wine and spirits merchant and very much the Observer’s stereotype of the new Celtic authority. He was also prone to litigation especially against those without the resources to defend themselves. A bigger issue, so to speak, is the phrase ‘Band of Catholics’ which refuses to go away. It is suggestive not only of ‘intimacy’ between McLaughlin and Dunn, but of a wider community clinging together in the face of unnamed exterior threats. To counter these there was football and the ‘one true church’, a heady mix.

It could be argued that Celtic’s origins in an immigrant community that felt unwelcome, struggled with poverty, and drew comfort from universal religion and local football, created a condition that didn’t exist in exactly the same way anywhere else. Unfortunately that’s not what McCarra means when he opens the book with ‘There is no other football club like Celtic’, a truism that my heretic brother could just as easily apply to Partick Thistle. Worse, he offers as unnecessary ‘proof’ the estimated 80,000 supporters who travelled to Seville for the UEFA Cup Final in 2003 and the fact that nobody got arrested. There are plenty of mass migrations by football fans from other countries where nobody gets arrested and there is no expectation that anybody will be. At Celtic, however, the most pressing comparison is usually closer to home. The next mass migration by fans of another Scottish team ended in tears.

Like the seventh minute penalty given away by Jim Craig in the 1967 European Cup Final, this is a sloppy start but with better to come. The first two chapters show the early ‘Band of Catholics’ at work. Not just Maley and McLaughlin but John Glass, Brother Walfred and others. John McFadden, secretary of Hibernian came to St. Mary’s Parish in Glasgow’s East End and challenged the locals to set up their own team. They did and subsequently pillaged all the best players from his. Across the city, Rangers watched and, after a brief flirtation with Catholic players, decided to exclude the lot of them.

After this initial flurry, Celtic adopted the Catholic way of viewing certain things as immutable, team management in particular. Maley survived until 1940 as Secretary-Manager, Jimmy McStay covered the war years and Jimmy McGrory somehow made it from 1945 to the arrival of Jock Stein twenty years later. Stein was Celtic’s first Protestant manager which is occasionally used to try to equate the attitudes of one side of the Old Firm with those of the other. McCarra argues that the real turning point Stein represented was from board control of football matters to manager control. The board that confirmed Stein’s hiring in 1965, however, had never had a non-Catholic director which is harder to explain. The Band of Catholics played a long tune.

Like most of the chapters in McCarra’s book, the one on Stein stretches and strains in all directions but still grips. Stein’s man management skills were clearly of a superior order. His relationship with Jimmy Johnstone has the feel of kindly/gruff headmaster and recalcitrant student genius. By the end of the chapter though, Stein remains an enigmatic figure. Even the remarkable transformation he effected on the field is not convincingly explained.

In preparation for writing this, I watched the 1967 European Cup Final between Celtic and Inter Milan again. Note the attacking full backs, the goalkeeper who rolls the ball out rather than hoofs it down field, the facility for ball retention and close control, the eschewing of high crosses in favour of low cutbacks (which produced both of Celtic’s goals), the preponderance of short men from the midfield forward, the channelling of the ball towards a wee bandy legged guy who is hard to knock off it, the switch to someone else freed up if the bandy legged guy is man marked or doubled, and so on. I’m fairly sure Pep Guardiola will have used more than an upturned bench to promote keeping the ball on the ground. Stein must have too though nobody seems to know what.

Big Jock gets even more attention in The Road to Lisbon by Martin Greig and Charles McGarry. It’s ‘the first fictionalised account of Celtic’s historic win over Inter Milan’. There are, of course, numerous fictionalised accounts available most nights in Glasgow pubs where even the teller claiming to have been in Lisbon is fictionalising. The story is in three voices: Tim who is part of a gang from the Gorbals heading for Lisbon in an over-packed car, Jock Stein who spends a lot of time talking to himself or to Sean Fallon, and an imagined Jock Stein who speaks to Tim in the way Eric Cantona does to the hapless Manchester United fan in the film Looking for Eric.

The Road to Lisbon is a rocky one, I’m afraid. Big Jock’s genius is no easier to fathom here despite being given a lot of time to explain himself. In fact he is a bit of a crude character who you would swear (pun intended) had modelled his media interview responses on the ones given by Walter Smith to Chick Young twenty years after Stein died. He even accosts the German referee at half time in Lisbon and calls him ‘A Cheatin’ Nazi bastard’ which isn’t the Jock Stein the rest of us want to imagine.

The book at least formalises the great stock of myth making that already exists about Lisbon and prompts the question (pot and kettle acknowledged) of what inspires Scottish men of a certain age to obsess about 1967? Greig and McGarry plump for the usual things: a first escape from grimy violent Glasgow, a coming of age experience, success for a community previously taught to believe it didn’t deserve any etc. What The Road to Lisbon doesn’t say (though it is implied in the dedication) is that all this is now overlaid with the memory of parents, fathers especially, who were there when we watched the game the first time but aren’t here now.

For many of us, lost parents were followed by a loss of the faith that sustained them and underpinned their team. In 1967 Church and football were still in balance. I was kicked out the house before the game ended because it coincided with a Catholic Holiday of Obligation and there was evening mass to attend. Today great bands of lapsed Catholics stream past the doors of Glasgow’s East End parishes heading for Celtic Park and 12.30 Old Firm Sunday kick offs. Still, those trained in faith generally feel the need to place it somewhere. The litany of the saints has become ‘Simpson, Craig, Gemmell’ and a new hymnal is filling up. Henrik Larsson, about the right age and look for a saviour, generated many songs of praise. There is even one for Willie Maley.

The current Celtic manager says his ambition is to win the Champions League which is a tall order with a mercurial Greek and an on-loan goalie. Perhaps the obsession with Lisbon stems from the suspicion that we will have to settle for local comparisons after all, if there are any to be made. On the south side of Glasgow nine lives are almost used up. Whyte has just agreed to transfer his Rangers shares to Green and King isn’t happy, a sequence of names beyond the invention of the most gifted Bhoy satirist. The famous red-brick façade may yet turn to straw and if it is blown down the only question left will be the one common to all religions – what next?


CELTIC: A BIOGRAPHY IN NINE LIVES

Kevin McCarra
FABER AND FABER £16.99, 288PP, ISBN: 9780571234356

THE ROAD TO LISBON

Martin Grieg and Charles McGarry
BIRLINN £7.99, ISBN: 9781780270845

From this Issue

A Low, Dishonest Decade

by David Torrance

You Couldn’t Make it up

by Joseph Farrell

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