Scottish blood, Irish heart
SPORT:Money, the lack of it and the dangers posed by the financial crisis at Old Firm rivals Rangers are recurring themes in Kevin McCarra’s new study of Celtic, who are odds-on to wrap up yet another Scottish Premier League title this weekend
Celtic: A Biography in Nine Lives By Kevin McCarra Faber and Faber, 304pp. £16.99
SEVILLE, 2003. EVE OF the Uefa Cup final between Celtic and Porto. A narrow street close to one of the Spanish city’s many shady squares is occupied by more than 1,000 Celtic fans. Spirits are high, and plentiful, and alongside la calle runs a sort of high boardwalk, which seems hopelessly out of place in a city blessed with its distinctive blend of Arab and Spanish architecture but which is ideal as a makeshift terrace.
Few cars dare to navigate around the merry hordes on this night; each one that does venture down the narrow route is greeted along the way as if the club has just scored a last-minute winner. Eventually two members of the Policía Nacional turn a corner on to the street and are greeted by cheers that had, only moments earlier, been directed at the driver of an old Seat Marbella.
Only once are the crowd quietened, when one driver jumps out of his car halfway down the street and opens his boot – though any worries that the celebrations have gone too far are quickly dispelled when he produces a football and kicks it into the crowd. The appreciative cheers are, of course, out of all proportion.
Every Celtic supporter has his own memory of the 2003 Uefa Cup final. Or, at least, 80,000 of them do. It was, writes Kevin McCarra, believed to be the “greatest mass migration between nations in the history of football for a single game”.
It’s no surprise, then, that Celtic: A Biography in Nine Lives opens in southern Spain and closes with a chapter on the man responsible for the 2003 adventure, Martin O’Neill, who was then halfway through a glorious five-year stint as the team’s manager.
O’Neill tells McCarra how, a day or two after the end of such a momentous season, he was taken aside and told that – despite reaching the final, which Celtic eventually, controversially, lost in extra time – the club was still losing money and needed to rein in the players’ wage bill.
It’s a theme throughout the book: money, the lack of it and the management of what little there is. So it is fitting that McCarra’s book should appear now. After decades of struggle – internal and external, real and (as at every club, but perhaps especially at Celtic) imagined – it is ironic that the biggest threat to the club is the financial woes of Rangers.
McCarra recognises the potential fallout for the club he loves of the crisis taking place at Rangers, warning: “The very term ‘Old Firm’ is a sardonic reference to the mutual financial benefits that made them partners as well as antagonists.”
He doesn’t, however, mince his words when it comes to attributing blame. Celtic took care to balance the books; Rangers didn’t. A quote at the turn of this century by the then owner, David Murray, is used to sum up the policy at Ibrox: “For every fiver Celtic spend, we’ll spend a tenner.” No coincidence then, surely, that a few months after Celtic spent £6 million on Chris Sutton in the summer of 2000, Rangers spent £12 million on Tore André Flo, making the Norwegian the most expensive Scottish Premier League player ever.
McCarra certainly conveys the impression of a financial bubble at Celtic’s rivals that Irish people will, unfortunately, find instantly recognisable. The recent big fall was, apparently, inevitable.
Celtic’s progression since 1888 was less preordained, though the Guardian writer’s thesis shows how the placement of key figures at pivotal moments during the club’s timeline assured its advancement.
The nine men covered by McCarra’s book span the entire history of the club, beginning with John Glass, its first president, who was a builder by trade. He provided the foundations for the empire that Celtic was subsequently built on. Well known in Irish-community circles in Glasgow – Glass’s parents were from Donegal, a county that has, perhaps more than any other, indelible fingerprints on every aspect and era in Celtic’s long history – he had the vision to follow the tiptoeing into professionalism that was occurring south of the border in the final years of the 19th century.
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, McCarra struggles to provide a fresh perspective on much of the opening decades of Celtic’s history. Has anything been left unsaid about Newry-born Willie Maley, who was manager of Celtic for no less than 43 years (put that in your pipe, Alex Ferguson), or Jock Stein, the nine-in-a-row league-winning manager who also, and more famously, steered the Scottish club to its one and only European Cup title in 1967?
Fortunately, as the chapters turn to the modern era, the pace quickens considerably and the reader begins to learn rather than revise. First-hand accounts from the likes of Fergus McCann (who owned Celtic FC for five years during the 1990s), O’Neill, the club’s greatest striker, Henrik Larsson, and the current manager, Neil Lennon, breathe life on to the pages. The book ends strongly with a chapter on O’Neill’s tenure, as well as a fascinating insight into the boardroom mistakes that led to the signing of the managers immediately preceding the Derry man: Jozef Vengloš, John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish.
There is, apparently, an insatiable market for books about the Glasgow-born, Irish-influenced club. Or, at least, that’s the general belief held by eager authors and keen publishers. (At least 20 books about Celtic have been published in the past year alone.) Sitting alongside the others on the bench – sorry, shelf – this one will at least raise the median quality mark.
Damian Cullen is an Irish Times journalist