I fell in love with Celtic because of a song.
I was 14 when The Pogues’ third album If I Should Fall from Grace with God hit the shelves. I bought it on the day of release and ran home to give it a spin. One song jumped out: The Birmingham Six. Shane MacGowan’s anger as he spat out lyrics about Irishmen being fitted up by British cops blew my teenage mind.
I read a book about the case and then joined campaigns to free the Birmingham Six and other framed prisoners. As we travelled around, going to meetings, visiting the men in jail and holding demos, I fell in with a pair of Celtic fans who chatted night and day about the Bhoys. Talk about obsessed – with these guys it was Celtic this, Celtic that and absolutely nothing else.
I loved their passion for the club and its traditions, their talk of Paul McStay, the Lisbon Lions and their renditions of rebel songs that were sung at games. I found their zeal so infectious that I started looking out for
Celtic’s score at the weekends. As I learned more about the club’s roots and history, I started to fall in love. Soon, I found myself cheering Celtic victories.
This, despite the fact that I was an Arsenal fan. The first football match I ever watched was the 1979 FA Cup final and when Alan Sunderland scored his dramatic late winner he captured my heart for the Gunners and for the game itself.
But at the start of the 1990s, I was getting a Celtic state of heart (and mind). In those pre-digital days, London felt even further away from Parkhead. I subscribed to the fanzines, Once A Tim and Not The View. I wrote to both of their letters pages and asked whether any fans might be willing to record Celtic matches for me if I sent them blank videos.
I quickly felt the warmth of the fan-base as a barrage of parcels started landing on the doormat. I loved watching those games. The 2-0 victory over Rangers in 1991 – the St Patrick’s Day massacre – remains my favourite game of football. I watched that tape over and over, laughing my head off as Hurlock, Walters and Hateley were sent off. (And don’t you think that Hurlock is the ultimate Rangers-looking man? I could imagine him at one of those battle re-enactments. Chaaarrrrrggeee!)
Former Gunner Liam Brady took over and Charlie Nicholas returned to Celtic, which excited me, even though neither was to prove a success at that point. I bought replica shirts and I loved how wherever I wore the hoops a Celtic fan would appear. During a family holiday on a small Greek island, an old guy told me about his firsthand memories of the Lisbon Lions era. He’d lived half his life in Glasgow and half his life in Greece, so his accent was incredible and so were his stories. We sank retsina late into the night.
I’d noticed as a kid that fan bases of different clubs could be amazingly different to one another. I remember one weekend in the early 1980s going to see Fulham and standing among gentle, kindly folk. The following weekend I went to Chelsea, only a mile or so away. This time, I stood among racist chants, punch-ups and stabbings.
The gulf could be even wider at international level. The travelling England fans of the early 1980s were a gammony disgrace, but the travelling Irish fans were a joy. So for me, the people I stood or sat alongside became more important to me than the people on the pitch. After all, it was us who created the atmosphere and there were thousands of us but only 22 of them.
It quickly became obvious to me Celtic fans were the best of the lot, so I wanted to go to Parkhead to stand among them. But I was also scared to meet my heroes. What if the reality of Celtic Park didn’t live up to my hopes? I continued following Celtic from afar.
My first visit to Celtic Park was on a non-matchday in the late 1990s. I was a staff writer for SHOOT magazine and I flew up to interview Simon Donnelly. After the interview I asked if I could have a walk round the empty stadium. I went weak at the knees as I stood on the pitch and in the stands. Even empty it felt like home.
Meanwhile, Arsenal was feeling less and less like home. Under Wenger, the team were smashing it on the pitch but upstairs, the guys in the suits were steadily eroding the club’s identity. They began socially engineering a new fan-base and the move from Highbury was, in retrospect, the death of the club as we knew it.
We found ourselves in a new, soulless stadium, filled by a new, wealthy fan base who were high on entitlement but low on loyalty and passion. Basically, 60,000 Karens. I knew several long-standing fans who stopped going. They couldn’t pretend anymore. It took me until 2018, and the fans’ spiteful hounding out of Wenger, to see what they had seen: that Arsenal was dead and replaced by a new entity, which could never appeal to me.
So it was time to meet my heroes. I had seen Celtic in testimonials south of the border and been blown away by the fans but I wanted to watch a match in Paradise, so I booked tickets to go to the Hearts match in February with my friend Alan.
I didn’t sleep the night before the trip and I arrived in Glasgow puffy-eyed but buzzing. By the time we got off the train at Bellgrove, I kept asking: “Alan, are you sure we’re going the right way?” I was scared we wouldn’t get to the ground on time but I was also scared that we would. What if I got there after all this time and it was shite?
My knees started wobbling as the stadium came into view in the distance. By the time we clicked through the turnstiles I was losing my mind. The following hours were everything I hoped for and more. Holding my scarf up as we sang You’ll Never Walk Alone felt like a shamanic initiation. I felt at home and I didn’t want to leave, so I went back the next morning for a stadium tour and booked tickets for the next home match.
When I returned to Glasgow, I thought I’d take a peak at Ibrox out of morbid curiosity. It’s a dark old place, isn’t it? As I walked round outside, the energy couldn’t have been more sinister. If Darth Vader had emerged from the gates I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
And then I went across the city to my new home, to enjoy more of the Celtic passion and warmth. I sat near the Green Brigade and had a blast. This was what I’d been looking for all my footballing life. I decided I would keep going as regularly as I could. But then Big Rona shut down football and poured a bucket of ice over me and my new love.
But I’m so glad I finally went. Once the virus gets all the way to fuck, I’ll be back. Thank you, Celtic fans, and thank you Shane MacGowan for your song, which, indirectly and belatedly, set me on the right path.