I watched with fascination as my papa tightly scrunched up the pages of a handy newspaper into a tight ball, the paper quickly coalescing into a near perfect sphere, about the size of a melon; the exotic fruit that my grandma rolled out as a starter on special occasions. Then with casual deftness, he wound a single length of string around, tied a few quick knots, cut the string and dropped the world’s cheapest football, only to volley it toward me with pinpoint accuracy. Marco Van Basten himself couldn’t have done it better. This, he explained, was the ball of choice when he was having a kick about on the streets of Glasgow at the dawn of the twentieth century. Here we are now, more than a century on from a young Celtic fan called Joe Chambers honing his footwork with a ball made out of yesterday’s Daily Record, and the official replica match ball for World Cup 2022 is manufactured entirely from plastic and costs over a hundred quid. Times have changed but there is one constant to glean from this vignette from my childhood; a passion for football passed through the generations.
When Ange Postecoglou won his first trophy for Celtic almost exactly one year ago, he made a post match interview that resonated throughout the support and led to a lot of people coming to a conclusion that could be summarised as ‘Big Ange just gets it’:
We just pass through these clubs, but the people in here; it’s generational support. They’ve invested their lives, their kids’ lives in this football club and these are the rewards, and we want to give it to them.
After an unspeakably miserable end to Neil Lennon’s tenure and the ensuing ennui, the authenticity of Ange’s sentiment reassured me perhaps even more than the newly acquired silverware. Here was a guy that understood that supporting Celtic is an heirloom, passed through the ages: priceless, many faceted, immutable. You might be wondering, who passed the flame onto you?
Be it mother, father, aunt, uncle, sister or brother, it’s a good bet it runs in the family. For me, it was my grandparents who took me to my first game at Celtic Park in 1986 – a three-nil drubbing in a friendly against Manchester United. Despite the eventual scoreline, I was excited to see heroes such as Danny McGrain, Tommy Burns and good ol’ Packie Bonner (brought on as a sub, only to be scored on by a treacherous Gordon Strachan). And when I said that supporting Celtic has an immutable quality, let it be known that we attacked relentlessly, didn’t take our chances and were punished on the counter – sound familiar? Oh, and we were denied a stonewall penalty from a handball too. I came away disappointed, yet elated by the atmosphere and spectacle, and not a little scared by the mounted police outside the ground.
Joseph and Marie Chambers had a link to the club that would make for great chats over cups of tea (orange squash for me though, thanks), whether it was the much requested retelling of their trip to Lisbon in ’67, where they watched Cesar lift the European Cup from the stands of the Estádio Nacional, or the undeniably cute tale of them cutting short their honeymoon up north so they could attend a tie against Aberdeen at Parkhead. Going further back, perhaps over the second cup of tea, you might have heard about papa’s playing career at St Roch’s, the junior team across town who play in green and white, albeit stripes, not hoops. The club that gave us the most prolific goalscorer in our history, the legendary Jimmy McGrory, may have produced another Celtic prospect in the shape of Joe Chambers, but for a career ending injury sustained to his leg.
I remember him telling me that he was in line for a trial for Celtic and during a preliminary medical he tried to conceal the evidence of the damage under his sock, but even the more basic sport science practices of the time required a sock-less examination of the foot. If only he hadn’t hobbled out of the Royal Infirmary in high dudgeon because he’d been ticked off by a nurse for showing in a mud caked football kit. The treatment he would have received could have saved his playing career. Decades later, an inch deep depression in his right calf was there as a reminder of what could have been.
My grandparents didn’t just provide a parade of Celtic related anecdotes, their everyday endeavours reflected the ideals of a club designed to be open to all. Publicans by trade, they took on their first pub around 1931/32 with The Pop Inn on London Road; a joint venture with my grandma’s dad, my great grandfather Owens. Their first solo undertaking had a slightly surprising name – The Regal. Pitched in solidly staunch territory on Paisley Road West, and directly opposite the still extant Rangers shop The Grapes, the new Catholic proprietors raised a few eyebrows from the neighbours. However, Joe and Marie’s ecumenical approach to life soon saw them settle into the local ecosystem, and The Regal became a regular haunt for local academics from both sides of the divide who wanted to chew over the issues of the day, knowing that things wouldn’t devolve into mindless mudslinging. It was a bar that was open to all – as long as you didn’t talk any pish, of course. Their successful custody of The Regal continued until 1954, when they went on to a brand new bar and new challenge, appropriately called The New Inn, situated in the traditionally, if not officially, ‘dry’ area of Millerston. The same inclusive ethos prevailed, and the New Inn enjoyed a life long beyond their retirement from the pub game in the 70s.
In another example of history repeating itself, kind of, I spent a good decade managing bars. When I took on my first bar job aged 19, grandma asked me if I poured a good pint, with a good pull from the cold tap and a little from the warm tap. This baffled me. I explained that you just flipped a handle and the beer came out until you flipped it off again when the glass was full. She was scandalised. I never quite understood what she meant about the ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ taps, until one afternoon whilst having a lunchtime pint in The Laurieston. A pub in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, The Laurieston is a time capsule of a typical 1960s boozer not dissimilar from the bars my grandparents worked in. I was chatting with James, one of the Clancy clan who have owned and run The Laurieston since the 80s, and I told him about the two tap mystery. He explained that back in the day, there was a small brass tap which was used to redistribute run off collected by a handy device called a beer engine. On any given busy night when the ale was flowing, the beer engine would sook any spillage from the metal trough beneath the taps, recirculating it for top-ups from the brass tap. James was kind enough to show me the obsolete beer engine in the cellar, and you can still see the wee top-up tap attached to the far side of the island bar. A small mystery solved, I went back to my pint of Jarl and mused that the friendly, welcoming pub I was sitting in was a sort of spiritual successor to the Chambers’ run New Inn.
In piecing together the strands of this small slice of family history, I’ve been reminded that my grandma was ruthlessly unsentimental, and consequently there are few mementoes of this Celtic story, save for a few bits n’ bobs my elder brothers got their sticky mitts on. As the small fry in the familial food chain, I had to sneak looks at the match programmes they’d managed to save from the proverbial bonfire of memories. Striking four-colour covers illustrated with team badges and duelling footballers, designed to be pored over before kick off accompanied by a molten hot plastic cup of Bovril, detailing line ups from some illustrious ties from the 60s and 70s.
The great (green and) white whale of memorabilia was a wee solid gold charm of a footballer, painted in the famous hoops, long divorced from its parent bracelet. Because of his small stature, Grandma used to say it was Jimmy Johnstone. Apparently my brothers would bicker over who would inherit this when she died, in the solipsistic manner of little kids. The fact that the diminutive totem has been lost in the mists of time, is perhaps the righteous consequence for this venial sin. In Jinky’s absence, perhaps the most prized possession is the pair of ticket stubs from the European Cup final, now framed for posterity, hung pride of place in my brother’s flat, carefully positioned away from direct sunlight. A daily reminder of the rarefied air this club and this support has tasted. This careful curatorship of the past will surely be applied to my brothers’ own reminders of their Bhoyhood adventures, with their programmes from the 80s & 90s and tickets from Seville 2003 neatly stashed away, ready for the archival digging of the next generation.
I dearly wish I could sit down with my Grandma and Papa today, ask them a million questions, watch a game with them, and hear their thoughts on ‘Angeball’. I’m sure Marie would still bemoan that there was no-one as good as Jinky on the park (no matter how many men Jota might embarrass) – a common complaint when I watched Celtic games on the TV with her in the 90s. Although, for the record, she never had a bad word to say about Paul McStay. After all, she had eyes in her head (Joe’s eyes meanwhile, would probably be rolled to the back of his head, aghast at the neon socks that pass for boots these days.) Ours is truly a generational support, and may I suggest that, if it is possible, you organise a wee cup of tea, a cheeky pint, a scalding cup of Bovril – whatever takes your fancy – with whoever set you on the Celtic path: their gift to you will only be burnished further by tales told and memories shared – an ever brighter jewel to bestow.