As a Donegal blow-in, I’ve just completed what some here in Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ call a key ‘rite de passage.’
On the invitation of Celtic Football Club management, I made my first-ever visit recently not only to the historic city of Glasgow – where half the people in Donegal seem to have originated, and vice-versa – but also to the venerable stadium known as Parkhead, home of the Hoops, an illustrious team that has become nothing less than a cultural icon for many generations.
So, on a crisp, dry Saturday afternoon, two hours before kick-off against third-placed Inverness Caley Thistle, I found myself walking along a long inner corridor on the upper tier of the stadium lined with the framed autographed shirts of former players including Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, Honduran Emilio Izaguirre, Swede Henrik Larsson, Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons.
Within minutes, I was seated in the warm comfort of Café 1888 (the year the club was formed) enjoying a tasty lunch rapidly replenished with alcoholic beverage learning about the trials and tribulations not only of Celtic but of Scottish football in general.
And according to the man sitting opposite me – and no better person to grant illuminating insights than someone who has penned not one but three excellent books on Scottish football (‘The Quiet Man’, ‘Scotland’s For Me’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’) – footie across the water is not in a healthy state.
Not withstanding that my companion, Simon Pia, long-time journalist and now professor at leading universities in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, has been a ‘Hibbies’ (those persons, who for reasons most bemusing to many Celtic supporters, support Hibernian FC) and that his team now lingers in the shadows of the second division, his insights into the sport in his native land were thoughtful and well considered.
With money in short supply – at least compared to the massive amounts enjoyed by teams in the English league – Simon’s view is that Scottish football will remain mediocre and largely uncompetitive for the foreseeable future. And with Celtic’s arch Glaswegian rival, Rangers, declaring bankruptcy and being dumped unceremoniously into the second division more than a year ago, even that spark of zesty competition has been extinguished (though the two teams will face off in the League Cup semi-final soon – the first time they’ve met each other for two years).
Setting patriotism aside, or indeed lauding it, Pia – a product of Italian sperm that migrated to Edinburgh many years ago and who was my close pal at London journalism college a world ago – believes top teams such as Celtic would do better playing in the premier league down south.
“Facing the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal would certainly draw in the big crowds again and probably help other Scottish teams do better in domestic competitions and thus compete on the European stage more often, which would help improve the quality of the game here,” he said.
As for the match itself that day, real excitement was in short supply. The Hoops, under manager Ronnie Deila, struggled to break down a resilient Inverness defense. In the end, a single second-half goal by star forward John Guidetti allowed them to leap over their opposition and into third place, though two late goalmouth scrambles almost sent the visitors home to the banks of Loch Ness in triumph.
Whether good or bad for Scottish football, there are few saying Celtic, the richest team in the league, will not end up winning the premiership for the fourth successive year – especially after leaping to the top with a last-minute winner against Aberdeen on Sunday.
However, after talking to Simon, learning his team was founded by Irish immigrants (thus the nickname ‘Cabbage and Ribs’ and the harp symbol on the shirt) and listening to one of its wonderful musical anthems ‘Sunshine on Leith’ by The Proclaimers, I’m more interested in seeing the Greens promoted than what’s happening in the top division.
But please don’t tell anyone from west Donegal. I’m due to get my residency permit any day.
Checking your knowledge of Celtic, here are three questions from that day’s match program:
- Which two former Celtic captains are this season managing teams in the Championship in England?
- Which four clubs did Charlie Mulgrew play for between his two spells at Celtic?
- Which two current Celts have in their careers also played in Spanish football?
If you cannot answer these questions, you probably should watch this video Sunshine On leith CIS Final – BBC and listen to the song. I’ll see you at Easter Road.