This article first appeared in Celtic View November 2022.
My first time at a football match seemed like a good way to mark a significant zero birthday. My Celtic daft, season-ticket holding grandson Eddie kindly obliged – bless him – with tickets to see Celtic play Motherwell at home on 1 October. I grew up in Glasgow in a leftie family, two generations away from the east end, Ireland and the Catholic church. I learned to stay well clear of Glasgow’s two tribes and to accept the wisdom of the seemingly forever doomed Partick Thistle support among some family members. How my grandson broke free from the family tradition’s tradition of neutrality and jumped into hoops fandom remains a mystery.
Dressed in Eddie’s other birthday gift – a Celtic scarf, “not the hoops one for you Grandma, I got you the classier one,” we walked to Parkhead with my chivalrous guide mentoring me in the routines and traditions of a home game. We joined a growing crowd at the front of Parkhead Stadium for the arrival of the teams. Mounted police and fencing cleared the route to the main entrance for the fancy coaches. First the Motherwell bus – hardly a cheep for them as they left the bus – then the Celtic bus arrived. The huge roar that greeted the young men who descended the steps to the waiting crowd was joyous and loud – hail, hail the heroes! My first impression of gladiators heading to the arena grew as the rituals of the day went on.
Entering the doorway and climbing the many stairs, my anticipation and excitement grew with each step. At the summit, we emerged into the open air, high above the rectangular bowl with graduated sides rising from the hallowed green centre. The scale was breath-taking as we climbed the remaining external stairs to our seats and I turned around, took it all in and sat down – two in a 60,000-strong throng.
Keen to go early to soak up the full Celtic experience, I was not disappointed. Giant screens high above the gradually filling stadium, beamed out photographs with happy birthday, wedding and anniversary greetings to fans young and old as well as messages of sympathy for the recently deceased. Celtic regalia festooned the changing images as the ‘Celtic family’ honoured its members’ lives and milestones to create a surprisingly close community feeling in that giant arena.
As the stadium filled up, the pre-match announcements, preliminaries, music and warm-up marked time before kick-off. Announcements, a film montage and a souvenir programme honoured Jock Stein’s 100th birthday anniversary – their iconic manager, clearly of blessed memory.
With the pitch cleared and time marching on, the staging shifted a gear, the crowd settled as the kick off approached and a new ritual began. To loud fanfare, the teams walked out. The gladiator staging and crowd response was unmistakeable this time. This wonderfully diverse international squad of highly skilled, well-paid young heroes walked on to a roar of adulation as the crowd rose to its feet. The respect, honour and esteem accorded these young sportsmen in this highly ceremonial moment was visceral. In its celebration of their physicality, prowess and potential in that moment, it also felt ancient and universal. Sure it must be a grand old team to play for.
Although now a famed international football club, Celtic’s origins among the working class Irish migrant community of Glasgow’s east end seemed very much alive and well. Celtic Football Club and its fans retain a strong sense of their place in the geography, history and politics of the city. Celtic’s collective memory was out and proud that day.
Back on the terraces, I really enjoyed the game, instinctively jumping to my feet with everyone around me when Celtic scored. For all the support and loyalty, the scathing comments, swearing and growling when their team blew it with an own goal, or underperformed in any way, was hilarious. I learned which manoeuvers earned applause or loud howls of derision; miraculously I now understand the ‘off side rule’. At half time there was much coming and going for pies and drinks. Looking around I saw, men and women, young and old, families, couples of all ages and Dads with wee tots on their shoulders, cheery waves and chat between season ticket neighbours.
The Green Brigade, confined to their own section maintained a steady, orchestrated soundtrack throughout the game. Led by their conductor, who faced his lively ensemble throughout the game, their loud renditions of (let’s say) supportive songs in the Irish tradition and their relentless, never-miss-a-beat line of drummers helped sustain the warlike mood throughout the entire match.
I was very happy that Celtic won 2-1 that day. The rest of the Parkhead crowd were happy too as we made our way out into an east end Glasgow Saturday. Third generation, ex-east end Irish I may be but something stirred that day and it wasn’t really about the football – more about community, memory, family, history and place. Eddie and I headed for a like-minded pub to continue our celebrations and to savour the Celtic mood and the victory for a wee while longer.