The long read: Celtic eye another glorious chapter in their proud history, held back by the financial restraints of Scottish football
Neil Lennon's side are heading towards a ninth league title in a row but their huge band of supporters know their club can not compete with the mega money earned in the English Premier League
It’s 10am on a miserable Sunday in February and rain lashes against the side of the coach carrying Glasgow Celtic supporters as it turns into one of several large car parks around Hamilton town centre, 15 miles east of Glasgow.
Young boys, perhaps 10-years-old, stand on the pavement, their arms raised holding rolled up banknotes. A tatty scarf indicates they are fans of Celtic. They are after tickets for the Scottish Premier League game at Hamilton Academicals. There is sympathy for them on the coach, but no spare tickets among its passengers for the 30 minute journey from Paisley to the west of Glasgow.
Despite the crowd being limited to a sell-out 4,708 in a venue with only two permanent stands, over 35 coaches will park in Hamilton, far more than for an away game in England’s Premier League.
Celtic – and their arch-rivals Rangers – have well established networks of supporters’ clubs, official and otherwise, who run travel to away games. And their away support is vast, with every away game sold out.
The top-of-the-league team are aiming to win their ninth consecutive Scottish title, matching their own 1960s record and the 1997 achievement of Rangers. Despite the grim weather, the mood was positive on the coach going east. Fans reminisced about the vast away following to the 2003 UEFA Cup final in Seville, of past games against Rangers or European wins against Liverpool.
Gregg McCallister is a 47-year-old lifelong fan from Paisley, a working-class former mill town where Sir Alex Ferguson revitalised the local team St Mirren in the 1970s. Although he finds the style of football frustrating sometimes, he is keen to stress what a great shape the club is in.
“Financially, Celtic are doing well, we’ve found a good level in the Europa League and the home and away wins against Lazio recently were among my highlights as a fan. We’re in the Europa League and we are going for the ninth consecutive title – that’s the most important thing this season. And then a record tenth next year.”
The supporters’ club on the bus is named after former Celtic midfielder David Hay, who came from Paisley.
“It’s £8 (Dh38) return to Hamilton and we run a coach for every away game,” explains Paul McAteer, one of the organisers. “We’ve got a good group of boys on here. I’m enjoying watching Celtic right now.”
The bus parks up. We walk across the town centre with Paul Byars, a 29-year-old Celtic fan who has watched their last 122 consecutive games.
“I was a trainee accountant but Celtic is my addiction in life and so is football.” He now works as a window cleaner so that he can attend every Celtic game. He talks of highlights including stopping Rangers winning 10 leagues in a row, of winning the treble under Brendan Rodgers. And of lows such as losing the league on the final day of the season in 2005 at Motherwell.
To reach Hamilton’s stadium, fans walk through a supermarket car park, dodging puddles and piles of manure from police horses. Are there enough cars in Hamilton to fill all these car parks?
A fan with a spare ticket holds it high as he walks along the wet pavements. Such a practice would be illegal in England, but here there’s a sense of community where Celtic fans help each other out.
In front of the smallest crowd Celtic will encounter all season, as the game starts, the songs – led by Celtic’s Green Brigade, a vocal, ultra style group – are non-stop.
“Champions of Scotland,” they sing. “Have you ever seen [Rangers’ manager Steven] Gerrard win the League?”
“Here we go, ten in a row,” they holler.
Music to the ears
Celtic’s best player is 22-year-old striker Odsonne Edouard, a record £9 million (Dh 43m) signing from PSG in 2018 after a successful loan spell.
“I wanna be Edouard,” sing the Celts to the the tune of the Stone Roses’ I Wanna Be Adored. It sounds fantastic.
Former Celtic striker and Golden Boot winner Brian McClair texted Mani, the Roses’ drummer, when he heard it aired in Glasgow. “I said that Manchester United enter the pitch to one of his songs and now Celtic sing another about a player. Mani answered ‘That’s me made.’ His two favourite football teams had a connection to his band and that was enough for him.”
McClair scored 126 goals in 204 Celtic games before moving south to become the first Manchester United player since George Best to score 20 league goals in a season.
“The Premier League might be huge, but I often have people who come up to me and they’re only bothered about what I did at Celtic,” explains McClair, a boyhood Celt from nearby Lanarkshire who ended up being the team’s top scorer.
Celtic’s 5-0 win against Hearts this week, combined with Rangers’ defeat at Kilmarnock, means they are 10 points clear, though Rangers have a game in hand.
In 1986, when McClair went south, such was the strength of the Scottish league then, that Rangers finished fifth in a decade where Aberdeen beat Real Madrid to win a European trophy and Dundee United reached the semi-finals of the European Cup and the final of UEFA Cup.
Celtic and Rangers, with current average home crowds of 57,821 and 49,405 respectively, would be the fifth and seventh best-supported clubs in the Premier League. More people watch Celtic at home than Manchester City, but the third best-supported Scottish teams are Edinburgh sides Hearts and Hibs with near identical 16,700 averages. Hamilton’s average is 2,390.
What tilts the balance between English and Scotland clubs is the TV money given to the former, but very few English clubs can match the support for the two Scots giants.
After forming in 1888, Celtic became champions of the Irish Catholic immigrants who flocked to Glasgow. The tricolour of the Irish Republic flies wherever Celtic is supported, because of Celtic’s historic association with the people of Ireland and Scots of Irish extraction.
“My life’s philosophy was determined by my upbringing in Glasgow’s Gorbals,” recalls Pat Crerand, who played 120 games for Celtic before, like McClair, joining Manchester United. “I was a child of Irish immigrants and we led an impoverished, underprivileged existence – not that I knew it at the time.
“If you were a Catholic and Irish then you supported Celtic. I can’t even begin to explain why my brother John supported Rangers. I can remember him getting his Rangers scarf and going off to Ibrox by himself, which was a very brave thing to do if you lived in the Gorbals. I admired him for that.
“Mum was a real Celtic nut. She went to lots of matches and her support of the team never wavered. She was lucky enough to attend three European Cup finals in four years, the first in 1967 when Celtic triumphed in Lisbon, the second a year later between Manchester United and Benfica and the third in 1970 when Celtic lost in Milan.”
Celtic often lost their best talents to the biggest English clubs. Lou Macari was an early '70s star for Celtic when he picked up the telephone one night in 1973. Jock Stein, his manager at Celtic, was brief, but to the point: ‘Be ready in the morning. A car will pick you up. You are going south.’
“My wife, quite reasonably, asked me where I was going,” recalls Macari. “I told her that I didn’t know and she understandably looked surprised.
“I’d never considered life anywhere else but at Celtic. I didn’t sit down and wonder whether I was good enough to play elsewhere because I was so happy there. I’d won the league and the Scottish Cup in 1972. We beat Hibernian 6-1 in the final, when I’d scored two. But I came to renew my contract and went to see Jock Stein. I had no agent. I was earning £50 a week and wanted a raise. I walked into his room and was quite excited when his first words were, ‘You’ve done well for me’.”
Stein then offered Macari a new contract worth £55 a week. He was unhappy, told Stein and expected a raise. None of it was public. Stein decided to cash in on him and there were plenty of suitors. He was put in a car and didn’t know where he was going until he arrived at Anfield. Liverpool offered him £190 a week, having agreed a fee of £180,000 for him with Celtic. Macari was delighted and ready to sign for Bill Shankly.
But the story was to have another twist. Also at the game, by accident, was Crerand, Manchester United’s newly appointed assistant manager to new boss Tommy Docherty.
“I sat next to Paddy and watched the Liverpool players who I thought I’d soon be joining,” said Macari. “Paddy naturally asked me what I was doing and I told him that I was signing for Liverpool. He said that he was surprised because he hadn’t read anything about the move in the papers. I told him the story about how I had been smuggled down. Paddy looked me in the eye and announced, ‘Don’t do anything, we’ll take you’." Macari went to Manchester.
It’s hard to imagine a player making a similar choice now. Celtic can’t compete with any Premier League teams, not just United or Liverpool. They scout and sign well, but sell on successful players like Victor Wanyama or Virgil van Dijk, not to Liverpool or United initially, but Southampton.
Celtic are a far bigger football club than Southampton – and Leicester City for where then manager Rodgers left in 2018.
“He was one of the best coaches we've ever had,” says Byars. “It was a heartbreak for us when he went and a lot of fans felt duped.”
“I can understand why he went for a bigger challenge but my issue is the way he went,” says McCallister. “It’s not ideal that Celtic are a selling club, but we get £3.3 million for winning the league here from TV from prize money. The Premier League champions get £150m. Our top player Scott Brown is on £30,000 a week, there are Premier League players on ten times that.”
McAteer points the finger at Sky TV’s coverage in England. “They talk of Super Sunday games which feature teams like Bournemouth. With respect to them, they are tiny compared to Celtic or Rangers. I’d like us to be in the Premier League and we’d be top six. But Scottish football is not in a bad place.”
The focus of conversation often comes back to Old Firm matches in Glasgow that have taken place since 1888. McClair describes how these are “all consuming”.
“The Old Firm takes over everything that happens the week before the game. The atmosphere at both Celtic Park and Ibrox is wonderful. It’s a shame that the ticket allocations for visiting fans have been cut. The limited number of away fans diminishes the spectacle.”
Rangers cut the visitor allocation from 8,000 to 750 and Celtic did the same.
“We won there four times in a row and they felt we were taking the mickey,” Byars, who still goes to every Old Firm game at Ibrox, says. “Now, we have to wait in a cage and a car park for two hours before the game. You can’t affect the atmosphere now with 750. If Rangers score early it’s a wall of noise. I’d rather the big allocations return even with Rangers having 8,000 as they add to the atmosphere. If they beat us then they beat us. That’s football.” Rangers won at Celtic Park in December.
The spectre of sectarianism surfaces when the Old Firm is mentioned. Both clubs have been fined for songs sung by fans, both have made efforts to counter it for decades.
McClair prefers to emphasise the progress that has been made: “It’s a lot less than it was 30 years ago, in society and at the Old Firm games.”
90 minutes of hatred
The closer competition between the two since Rangers’ climb back into the top league means the games are still really bitter, as McCallister points out.
Did Celtic miss Rangers when they had to start out again in Scotland’s fourth tier?
“We had a party when they went down and it was funny,” McCallister laughs, “but then reality kicked in. We both need those games against each other.”
“It’s 90 minutes of hatred from me,” is McAteer’s verdict, “but that’s all it is from me. There’s other things in life that are important. My brother-in-law runs a Rangers bus and I have friends who support Rangers. I respect him as a football fan.
"I once had a Rangers’ end ticket when we played in the cup final and he had a Celtic end ticket. We both approached the ground from different directions because there’s total segregation before finals at Hampden Park. We were wearing our colours and then we went to swap tickets by the police cordon outside the ground. The police thought there was going to be trouble but there was none.
“I can see that Rangers are getting better now. They have thrown a lot of money at players and they have a high profile manager we like to laugh at because he likes to blame everyone expect himself.”
Coming back to the present, Celtic come from behind to beat a very spirited Hamilton, who’d been reduced to 10 men in the first half, 4-1. There is no scoreboard to tell fans the score or how many minutes have been played.
Celtic fans sing non-stop, with the tune emanating from the group stood behind a ‘Green Brigade’ banner behind the goal. They wear designer coats in shades of green rather than any obvious Celtic memorabilia.
But it’s impossible to compare to the 60,000 capacity Celtic Park. Nemanja Vidic said that playing at Celtic “when the fans breathe fire towards the players” was the only place where the atmosphere came close to the Belgrade derby.
Andres Iniesta said this month: “I’ll never forget playing at Celtic too, the atmosphere there is one of the best in the world, with songs. I was fortunate to play there several times and it was always so intense. It felt an honour to play there amid such noise.”
Raising the roof for the biggest games has never been a problem, but for run of the mill games Celtic Park’s atmosphere has been improved in recent years by the addition of the Green Brigade who are allowed to stand in a safe standing section which clubs in England are trying to emulate.
“They are great and while I don’t agree with all of the banners, those boys have helped a lot and Celtic Park can be a tense place at the moment if things don’t start well,” explains Byars. “Winning that ten in a row is a big deal, it’s so important.”
After the game, I was given a lift on the M74 past Scotland’s biggest (and Britain’s fifth largest) urban area of 1.7 million, towards Glasgow airport, with lifelong fan and former football agent Stephen Love.
“Celtic have been smart in recruitment,” he says. “Victor Wanyama, bought for £1m and sold for £12m. Moussa Dembele came from Fulham for £500,000 and we sold him to Lyon for £20m, having already bought in Edouard as his replacement. He’ll likely go for £25m upwards next summer.
Over the turnstiles
“Virgil van Dijk cost £2.5m from Groningen and was sold to Southampton for £13m. Neil Lennon saw how good he was in his first training session and said: ‘Just enjoy it here son, you’re not going to be here for long.’ He was that good and Celtic don’t stand in the way of players. The fans get that. He’s now the best defender in the world and Celtic got a big cut of his transfer fee to Liverpool. Ki Sung Yueng cost £2m and was sold to Swansea for £6m.
“I’m sure Christopher Jullien will move on for bigger money than the £7m they paid Toulouse for him. They can say to players ‘look what happened to Van Dijk. Come here, win trophies, playing in front of nearly 60,000, live in a great city like Glasgow and we won’t stand in your way if you do the business for us'. Celtic have a solid youth system and also get the best young Scottish players.”
Celtic don’t always get it right, though. They let Liverpool's celebrated full-back Andy Robertson, a childhood Celtic fan from Glasgow, leave because they considered him too small.
The car drives past the east end of Glasgow with Celtic Park to the right before passing by the rebuilt Gorbals which are unrecognisable from the place Crerand grew up.
“The ground was a twenty-minute walk away and I would go with my mates for matches and wait by the turnstiles until someone lifted us over,” he recalls. “I never went to games with my mum, that wasn’t the done thing. The ritual of being lifted over the turnstiles was one that every Glaswegian kid went through. It was accepted that if a man arrived at a turnstile with his boy he was allowed to lift him over and they both got in the match for the price of one.
"The turnstile attendant could hardly ask the man to prove that the boy was his son. Most supporters, therefore, were willing to lift a boy over if he asked them. So before any game you would see dozens of boys running alongside the grown-ups as they approached the turnstiles, shouting the immortal phrase: ‘Gonny gie’s a lift o’er, mister?”
Sadly for the boys asking for tickets in Hamilton, the rules have changed. I wonder if they got to see their team, but think they were probably unlucky like many, many others.
Updated: February 14, 2020 02:28 PM