I’ve chosen to write this after the disgraceful treatment meted out to Celtic’s fans in Amsterdam, and yesterday’s court verdict. It got me thinking about a dark hour in my own club’s history, one I was there to see.
I know what happened, and I know it wasn’t the way it’s been portrayed in the media, and on certain forums.
What follows is the truth. I’ve got no reason to lie.
At 8:46 am on the 13 May 2008, my phone rings and the voice on the other end says, “John boy, you fancy going to Manchester today? We’ll see if we can get tickets to the game?”
“Aye nae worries buddy,” I tell him. “It should be fun!”
On the other end of the phone is my cousin, and he’s asking if I want to go to Manchester for St Petersburg vs Glasgow Rangers, in the UEFA Cup Final the following day. It was a history making game, and being asked if I wanted to be there, to be part of it, was like asking an amateur star-gazer if he fancied a seat in Mission Control for a Mars landing.
“Aye of course bud, give me an hour to get ready,” I told him. Just like that. The match was in England, not darkest Russia. The decision to get up and go was a no brainer. He tells me the plans and we make the arrangements, and then I start to get prepared.
So, I get ready and my cousin picks me up at my house with his dad and his sisters son, and we head to Manchester for the game. 60 yards down the road, at the end of my street, I ask “Are we there yet?” and even though it’s an old family joke, always getting asked when we’re all in the car, and it’s utterly lame, it gets a laugh. Laughter covers nerves like nothing else.
We head to Blackpool, where this hastily cobbled together plan has pencilled us in for a three day stay. We get there and decide to head to the pub for a few beers. Unfortunately, it seemed no one decided to tell the locals that Rangers were in the final and their fans might be in town! There’s nowhere opened, and although some will say that maybe it was fortunate for the locals it wasn’t much good to the perhaps twenty thousand Rangers fans staying there who’d all had the same idea and now had nothing to do except go back to their hotels.
The following day, the day of the game, and we get up early, about 7:30 am, to head for Manchester for the game. I’d heard from hundreds of Celtic fans about Seville, and how amazing it was, and we couldn’t wait for a sample of the atmosphere which, we hoped, would be much the same, minus the glorious Spanish sunshine.
We get there on the train with five carriages full of Rangers fans, to the utter disgust of the locals who can’t get on to get to work. Furthermore, they are giving the staff dogs abuse because of the short sightedness of the rail company, who didn’t think to put more carriages on to cope with the demand that day.
I get their point, as they couldn’t get to work on time, because of the horde of Rangers fans going to Manchester.
We end up in Manchester about 9:30 am, and as soon as we get out the train station we are greeted by George Bowie and the Radio Clyde bus, with George greeting the thousands of Rangers fans as they arrived in town. We head off to the first shops we can find, to buy some drinks, but guess what? Sold out. The next seven or eight shops were exactly the same, so we headed to the nearest place to watch the game. This happened to be Piccadilly Square, and it’s packed.
Alongside the thousands of Rangers fans are a few hundred St Petersburg fans, who are having a wonderful time singing songs, about which I still have no clue.
We then decide to go and get something to eat, and head for a bar which is doing breakfast. There are four door staff at the entrance, and I stop and have a chat, and ask how the morning is going. They tell me it’s been amazing, if not a little disconcerting, having that many people coming in and out, but he said that, so far, it had been all fun and good humoured.
We head inside and order breakfast, with a few beers, which the staff are happy to serve. They are enjoying the banter, and the singing. Inside, at least, there is none of the bigotry and bile that the event became notorious for, and for which some of our supporters are known.
Fast forward a few hours, and I head to the beer tent for my round. I don’t have to wait forever, as there are taps that pour 12 beers at a time, which is magic if you’ve spent much time in a Glasgow boozer! A few drinks later, it’s mid-afternoon, and the supporters are mingling together. All you can see is a sea of blue, and not just Rangers blue, but now more than a couple of thousand St Petersburg fans, with massive flags being waved.
At this point, they were having a great time with the Rangers fans, and there was no trouble in my immediate vicinity. I head off to the toilets, just outside the square. There were less than a dozen, for a square I’m told is only able to accommodate seven or eight thousand people. In truth, there were perhaps thirty thousand there, and by now you could hardly move. There were still 3 hours before kick-off.
At that, myself and my companions find a space about 30 yards from the big screen, which is showing an empty Manchester City Stadium, panning back and forth. Nothing to worry about. It’s nearly game time we think.
As the kick off time approaches there’s a huge roar as fans start pointing to a sky scraper being built less than a mile away, where a huge Rangers flag is somehow being unfurled, at which the whole crowed starts singing. I’m nearly certain it was Rule Britannia being sung, not that it matters to me, as long as it’s not that hideous Billy Boy’s which, unfortunately, was being sung regularly, and all throughout the day.
With around 30 minutes to kick off, I headed back to the beer tent, for another round. I get to the front of the queue, and get the three beers, and I hear a crack. Next thing I know, the metal beam which holds the tent up has snapped, and a beam falls, just missing my head. I head outside to tell the family what just happened, and find out my uncle has gone to find me, to make sure I’m okay.
I come from a tight family. He’s my mother’s big brother, and he’d get his ass kicked if anything happened to his little sisters only boy. My grandmother had died the year before, which had made my mother de facto head of the family. I can just remember Danny Boy being played at my gran’s funeral, and although in tears I’d burst out laughing at the image of her pissing herself at all of us a Rangers persuasion who’d had to listen.
See, neither religion nor any of the nonsense surrounding it has ever affected me, or been part of my upbringing. Molly was a staunch Catholic who loved to wind us all up when we got cuffed off Celtic, but we all loved her to death. She was the boss of the family and I miss her to this day.
Why is that important to this story? Easy. Some people will read the rest of this and take away what they want from it, but regardless of what some of our tired, hack journalists seem to think, not every one of us, Rangers fans and Celtic fans both, are filled with hate for one another. I don’t know what country the people who think that are living in, but it’s not the same one as me.
Anyway … I digress …
I get outside the tent, to find some halfwit on top it. He obviously that it was a good idea, and a few other halfwits had tried the same, thus compromising the structure, and ensuring its collapse. Then, all of a sudden, some total tool, probably drunk, but I’ll never know, thought it would be a good idea to throw a can at the guys on the tent … and so The Shame started.
Another can was thrown. Then another. Meanwhile, down where I’m standing, there’s a metal fence down at the big screen, and there’s a guy and a woman at the top of it, trying to climb over, to get into the square, where there was barely enough room to move at it was.
So, people start shouting at them to piss off, and the guy tries to pull the fence down but, to no avail, whilst the woman is still sitting on top of it. A chorus of “get your tits out for the boys” erupts, which was quite funny, and which she thinks about obliging until she cracks on that it’s probably not such a hit idea. This is greeted with a chorus of boos and hisses, and after a couple of minutes of arguing between guys on the inside and outside, the guys on the outside manage to rip the fence down to the dismay of all the rest of us. A fight breaks out between the insiders and the morons who have taken down the fence, and that’s the moment when all Hell really broke loose.
It started in small scuffles, for about five minutes, and then a single bottle was thrown in the direction of the scuffles, from the centre of the crowd, then another, before some bright spark decides to throw one back.
I’m standing there, watching this happen, utterly aghast, unable to believe this is how the day has ended up. I’m standing, talking to a guy from Inverness, who’s as shocked as me, when a Budweiser bottle flies by our heads. We were lucky. It smashes into a bald guys forehead, it explodes in a shower of beer, and blood, and is probably the moment when I swore this would be the first, and the last, time I would follow Rangers in Europe, as the fans can, and on many occasions have been, an utter disgrace. Reading it in the papers is one thing. Seeing it first hand …
After this happened, there was a hail of bottles and cans thrown in every direction, as the fans lost the plot and started on each other. It was then, and only then, that the “big screen” shut down, which I can’t blame the Manchester police for now, as the chaos ensued.
As all this was happening, myself and my older cousin were trying to keep my other cousin’s son under us as we headed out the square, from behind the giant screen, to protect him from a hail of glass and cans. We headed straight up to the train station, in an effort to get ourselves back to Blackpool, where we are met buy two hundred police officers and dogs.
Here’s the funny thing; there is no sign of trouble here, and the officers ask what all the fuss is about. But it’s then I get a phone call from my father in law, a staunch Celtic fan, and still a very close friend, even after my divorce from his daughter. He is worried that I have been caught up in the riots, but at that point all I’ve seen is a fight between some drunken neds, and I have no clue what he is talking about. He fills me in, and I remain thankful I got myself out of there when I did.
To be honest, the event was a screw-up from start to finish. At the entrance to Piccadilly Square there were only two stewards, and about another five or six inside the square that I could see. In my opinion, the whole day was horrendously under prepared for the numbers and Manchester Council hopelessly underestimated the sheer volume of people who would descend on Manchester. I’ve later found out they refused an offer to show the game at Old Trafford. Maybe that’s politics. Maybe they did not want to share the profit with a neighbouring council.
Let me be clear, in no way will I try to defend my support for the sheer, awful, hooligan behaviour of what was ultimately a very small number of the people who turned up that day. There is no excuse for what happened, but there were many, many thousands upon thousands more who did nothing wrong, and to this day, and forever, these people have been tarnished by a rabble of scumbags who I don’t believe have a right to even call themselves football fans.
That bad reputation has tarnished our support, probably forever, and although I did nothing wrong, I’m included in that, something I’ll always be angry about.
Yet as bad as it was, a lot of myths have grown up around the event, some started on football blogs, some in the newspapers, some by general word of mouth, and I want to highlight one of those. After listening and reading the stories in the news and papers I was surprised by some of the coverage, because I know the truth. Earlier, I mentioned a door man who spoke to me and said everything had been excellent all day. Imagine my shock when I saw the same guy, on TV the very next day, saying to the cameras that there has been a bad atmosphere since early afternoon. It’s total bollocks like that which has created much myth around what actually took place.
I know the majority of the readers on this blog will probably pour scorn on this post, but all I can ask is that you take the time to read it and ask why I would lie. I don’t defend us, in any way, but I just wish the true story would get out there.
It’s important not just to our supporters but to yours too. The situation in Amsterdam, and the way some in the media have tried to cover it – Keith Jackson on TalkSport, saying it was like Manchester, when to the best of my knowledge he was in neither city – shows that even a small handful of people, or a couple of incidents, can be blown out of proportion, and ruin a hard fought reputation, even one as good as that which the Celtic fans have.
It is tempting for people on blogs and on forums, amongst their mates down the pub, or even in our day to day lives, portraying everyone on the other side as “the enemy”, but in truth the number who genuinely feel that way are small as their limited brain power. The rest of us live together, work together, live, eat, sleep and get on well together just fine. I grew up in one mixed family and married into another, and I never cared about any of it.
That day in Manchester was supposed to be a celebration of how far my football club was capable of going, and coming on the heels of Celtic making a European final it should have been a great day for Scottish football too. I never saw the game, because of what happened, and I’ve never been able to watch it since. All that day holds for me are bad memories.
I just can’t face it.
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