Saturday 24 February 2007
Brian Viner: High price for membership of Celtic soul brotherhood
Tennents Bar on Byres Road in the West End of Glasgow was as good a place as any to watch Celtic v Milan on Tuesday night, or as good a place as any except Parkhead. We stood, 15 or 20 deep, clutching our beers to our chests only because there was no other way of holding them, in as tight a formation as the wooden bricks in a game of Jenga.
Even a thirsty gerbil would have struggled to navigate its way from the door to the bar, which made it all the more remarkable that, late in the second half, an ambulance crew managed to do just that, the packed throng miraculously parting for them like the waters of the Red Sea. A man had collapsed, not from a want of oxygen but from a glut of drink.
I asked my friend, Graham, just when the hospitals of Glasgow started sending ambulances to pick up men who slump to the floor of busy pubs, too blootered to stand? They must razz round the city like the chariots in Ben Hur, stopping briefly to belt in and out with stretchers. It's another way in which the Glasgow pub experience has changed: a night in Tennents a few years ago would have left my clothes smelling like Pete Doherty's breath, but now, like everywhere else, it's a blessedly smoke-free zone.
The other astonishing thing about the ambulancemen's visit was that nobody except me took the blindest bit of notice. The parting of the crowd happened instinctively, with not a single set of eyes, except mine, leaving the many screens festooning the walls. In Tennents, and many bars like it, a Celtic fixture in the Champions League is uninterruptible by anything less than the sudden death of a close relative, and even that is negotiable.
It has been my privilege on two or three occasions in recent years to visit Parkhead on Champions League nights, and in my experience, which embraces big matches at Old Trafford, Anfield, Ibrox, San Siro and the Nou Camp, there's nowhere else remotely like it. Tennents Bar was the same, writ small. In a way it was a mercy that there were no Celtic goals, because I can't imagine what would have happened to all those pints clutched to all those chests. The biggest show of emotion was reserved for the 70th-minute dive by Milan's Alberto Gilardino, for which he was wrongly booked only in the sense that he should have been sent off and banned from all contact sports for life. It was the most miserable, weaselly, limp-wristed stab at cheating it has ever been my misfortune to see, and I've seen Arjen Robben.
Needless to say, the crowd in Tennents erupted as one, in a righteous roar of outrage, followed by a volley of blasphemous abuse sufficient to make a stevedore blush. In fact, it occurred to me that it probably did; that close to the Clyde, there must have been a few stevedores in.
Martin O'Neill must watch Celtic on nights like that with seriously mixed emotions. For all Aston Villa are a big club, he will never again get the unique buzz of managing his beloved Hoops on big European nights in a stadium where no fewer than 52,000 people are season-ticket holders, about double the tally at Villa Park, and where plans are afoot to increase capacity to 80,000.
Nor, whatever he achieves at Villa, will he ever be accorded the messianic status he got at Parkhead, although whatever his successor, Gordon Strachan, achieves at Celtic, he will never be worshipped like O'Neill was.
Heading for the airport on Wednesday morning I got chatting with my taxi driver, a Celtic fan old enough to remember "wee Puskas" visiting with Real Madrid. What did he think of Strachan, I asked. "Aye, he's done well, right enough," came the reply. "But he's no' a real Celtic man, no' like yer Jock Steins, yer Billy McNeills, yer Tommy Burns, yer Martin O'Neills."
However wistful O'Neill gets when he hears things like that, he knows that for Celtic, those European nights are the jam doughnut reward for enduring the flavourless bread-and-butter of the Scottish Premier League. There is a price to pay for entertaining Milan at home, and it's Dunfermline away. There was a price to pay, too, for watching Celtic v Milan in the nervous hush, except during Celtic's rare attacks and when Gilardino dived, at Tennents Bar. And that price was the volume and clarity of Archie Macpherson's commentary, as pompous now as it was when I lived in Scotland 25 years ago. I was always more of an Arthur Montford man, Montford being Macpherson's ITV counterpart, the Brian Moore to Archie's John Motson, and justly celebrated for his shameless partisanship.
Once, in a World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Czechoslovakia, with the Czechs playing hard and not terribly fair, Willie Morgan received the ball on the wing and dear old Arthur could contain himself no longer. "Watch yer legs, Willie," he bellowed, "watch yer legs!"
Who I like this week...
Audley Harrison, if only out of sympathy following his devastating defeat by Michael Sprott, which in turn was followed by the unseemly spectacle of people gleefully dancing on his professional grave. Those who ridiculed his chances of ever becoming world heavyweight champion conspicuously did so after the Sprott fight, not in the weeks before. Still, I confess to a slight personal agenda because I took some gentle ribbing from colleagues after Harrison's defeat, given that my interview with him, in which I was again suckered by his eloquence and ambition, had appeared in these pages the day before the fight. I like you, Audley, but it won't happen again.
And who I don't
Craig Bellamy, who says that the press can write what they like, so here goes: he's a nasty little thug who, by celebrating his goal for Liverpool against Barcelona with a parody of his alleged golf-club attack on John Arne Riise, showed himself, by no means for the first time, to be utterly devoid of shame, scruple or indeed wit. Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley would have dragged him off the field by his ear, except of course that those two, mindful of the club's reputation, would never have signed such a known troublemaker in the first place. I imagine that Alan Hansen considered the episode deeply offensive too, albeit mainly because it was such a horrendous golf swing.
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