PO Box 306, Glasgow, G21 2AE, Scotland
The Official Biography of Celtic: If You Know The History by Graham McColl; Headline Publishing; 370 pages (16 pages of b/w and colour pictures); £18.99 hardback
Together with the official history DVD (see review in NTV 169) this book would appear to be the club’s other way to mark the 120th anniversary of the founding of Celtic.
Unlike the previous official histories (A Century With Honour by Brian Wilson and You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry McNee) this one does not simply chronicle the major events and people associated with the club in a straightforward linear narrative from the early days until the present. Instead, the author has interspersed the story of the club with chapters dealing with what gives Celtic a special and unique character - hence the official biography as opposed to history.
Maybe the thinking is that so many books about Celtic have been published in recent years that anyone wishing to delve deeper into the minutiae of the history has plenty of works to choose from. Whatever, the result is that some of the historical chapters come across as a bit thin - certainly not as comprehensive as, say, The Glory and the Dream - while others offer an insight into different aspects of the club that might be otherwise overlooked in a straightforward history.
The chapters entitled ‘Identity Tags’ and ’Shades of Green’, for example, which cover similar themes to ‘Celtic Minded’. The latter contains some of my favourite contributions from supporters, in particular Brian Sharp, Presbyterian kirk elder in Bothwell and Celtic fan for fifty years. Needless to say Sharp has had to put up with his share of open mindlessness over the years - not least from members of his own church - because of his support for the Hoops, but he recounts an incident when he was being introduced to Robert Davidson, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “When he came to me, one of my fellow elders said, ‘Moderator, I don’t think we should introduce you to this man.’ Of course, Robert Davidson stood back, wondering why, and my fellow elder said, ‘Moderator, he’s a Celtic supporter.’ And, of course, all my fellow elders shook their heads and said, ‘Sorry about this, we didn’t want you to meet him.’ Then Robert Davidson said, ‘Brian, let me shake your hand. I’m a Celtic supporter as well.’.. Then he explained he had been in Parkhead Parish Church and that Celtic had sent him a letter to say that as a member of the local clergy he was very welcome to come along to Celtic Park... Robert Davidson took up the offer and became a Celtic fan.”
The club’s legend are given their place here, but as with his superb book about Celtic’s managers (The Head Bhoys) McColl is not afraid to dish out stick where it’s due and once again, Willy Maley emerges as a most unappealing person, even if his contribution to Celtic’s domination of domestic football is acknowledged. Maley’s restaurant in Glasgow was made into a de facto clubhouse for the players and their associates, prompting Willie Buchan to remark, “He must have made millions - and I mean millions - out of the Bank Restaurant.” Maley, it would appear, had more in common with Rangers’ martinet manager Bill Struth than just an interest in athletics.
As an official publication the present board of directors are given an easy ride, but that lassitude isn’t extended to the concert party in charge during the 80s and 90s. Jimmy Farrell is quoted several times, passing comments on his former board colleagues as though he was some kind of undercover agent for the real fans, rather than as complicit as any of the other members of the Mad Hatters Tea Party, but the real hopeless cases are portrayed as the Kellys and Christopher White. McColl includes a paragraph recounting an incident where Kevin of that ilk had to walk across the car park on Edmiston Drive to get into the main stand at Ibrox. As if it wasn’t bad enough being goaded by the Rangers supporters tossing coins in his direction, Kelly actually stooped to pick them up, confusing wit with making a pathetic spectacle of yourself - an almost permanent state of affairs for Kev, unfortunately. “Did you have any trouble on your way in?” he was asked by Minty, who had witnessed the whole sorry episode from a window above. “All I can say, Mr. Murray, is that your supporters are very generous,” is the reply recorded as coming from Kelly. As a metaphor for the respective situations of the two clubs at the time it is spine-twistingly apt.
Thankfully, the Bunnet came to the rescue in the nick of time to restore some self-respect to the club, and there is a good chapter about Fergus in the book. Asked about his enduring memories of his time in charge, among other things McCann recalls a visit to a Queens Park FC solicitor to sign agreement renting Hampden Park for season 1994-95 who said, “It’s been made quite clear to me by certain parties that this clause is a deal-breaker.” The clause was a stipulation that Celtic would not fly any ‘foreign’ - read ‘Irish’ - flag at matches.
To bring matters boardroom up to date, McColl includes interviews with Brian Quinn and Dermot Desmond. Dermot seems to divide opinion somewhat, but I found myself nodding in agreement when he is quoted as saying things like this about Rangers: “They’re our key opponents and we don’t want to give them any bragging rights because they’re pretty good at bragging... In every match with them, 10-0s, 9-0s, any score like that would be a good result against them as far as I’m concerned.”
Mind you, he does seem to get annoyed on the subject of people clamouring for him to hand over money out of his bank account to fund deals in the transfer market despite him having spent millions of pounds underwriting several share issues at Celtic: “I get that all right, about splashing the cash or putting my hand in my pocket or giving more money to the manager. For those people, I really have no respect or regard whatsoever. When people say that you can just solve all problems by throwing cash at it, it’s absolutely stupid. It’s an insult to my intelligence. So those people, if they’ve got lots of money and they want to throw cash at it, we’ll take it every time from them. I don’t believe in burning pound notes or euro notes or whatever the currency is. To me, if you start that approach, you’ll go bust pretty quickly. It doesn’t make any sense and what you’re doing is deferring a problem. You’re propping up something that doesn’t have a foundation and it’ll soon collapse.”
There should be a copy of this on Minty’s desk forthwith.
He goes on: “What we are trying to do is build the club. Nobody has the divine right for success. It’s not a formula in football: it’s an art picking a manager; and then it’s an art finding players; and it’s an art then of putting the right team together. The only concern I have going forward is that we retain people of the calibre of Peter Lawwell and Gordon Strachan and that we continue to improve our structure, personnel and playing staff. We’re brave enough and strong enough that in difficult times we’ll stick together and won’t panic and won’t have any witch hunts. I think part of what makes Celtic strong is that in tough times we are united not divided.”
Dermot also claims that Celtic, with its background in the Irish immigrant community, still remains the team of the “underclass”. You can see the appeal to the ‘underclass’ of a business (charity was pretty much abandoned a couple years into the club’s existence) with a turnover of £75 million a year; the serious point being it’s easy to see why there is an element of disaffection in the stands these days when we hear one thing and see quite another in practice.
The book is rounded off with 60 pages or so of statistics and records which make fascinating reading in themselves and which update a lot of the stuff which appeared in McColl’s previous official illustrated history.
It has been a long road since Celtic played their inaugural match against Rangers on 28 May 1888, and a lot has changed in the game in the intervening 120 years. McColl has done a manful job of tracing the threads that have run through the club since the earliest days, the belief and the passion which remains strong in the fans of today - the heart and soul of the club.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea - there’s just too much of the board’s official spin to appeal to those of a radical bent, while history buffs will feel there’s not enough of that to keep them happy - but I found it generally interesting, and often fascinating.
Well written and a worthy addition to your Celtic bookshelf, it’ll more than keep you occupied over the festive holidays.