Apparently, last Saturday, I and hundreds of others went on a hooligan rampage and “destroyed” the West London suburb of Brentford, while attending a pre-season ‘friendly’ between weakened sides from Brentford’s League One club and current Scottish champions, Celtic. That last event was actually how I spent my Saturday afternoon; which I why I was very surprised to discover my role in the first. Let’s get some things straight straightaway. The behaviour of the 6,000+ Celtic fans at Brentford was raucous and loud both outside and inside their Griffin Park ground. Some of it was, frankly, wrong; fireworks and drunks on the pitch during the game, for example. However, I would be hard pushed to describe it as worse than the behaviour of many of the football crowds I have observed in, ulp, 40 years watching the game at various levels. In fact, in some aspects it was fabulous. And I would certainly not describe it in the emotive terms used by others of a, shall we say, non-Celtic persuasion – many of whom were nowhere near London, let alone Brentford, last Saturday.
Celtic fans, it seems, were “thugs” and “scum” at Brentford; “balaclavas were worn,” “Provo flags and IRA chants continued throughout the game,” there were “mass pitch invasions,” “they trashed the pitch apparently,” and “reportedly sang songs mocking the death of Lee Rigby.” The “thugs” and “scum” stuff echoed the reaction to the sighting, at May’s Scottish Cup Final, of an Irish flag with the purported legend “Islam CSC” emblazoned upon it. The flag’s legend was, of course “Achill ISLAND CSC”, the Celtic supporters club from islands off Co. Mayo, in the Irish Republic’s north-west. Yet the “thugs” and “scum” reaction was reported in the Scottish press, where it was reported at all, as “anti-Islam.”This alleged “Islam CSC” flag was considered insensitive, displayed as it was days after Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered in Woolwich, South-East London. So it is hardly surprising that songs glorying in his murder would so anger people if they heard them. They’d anger me if I heard them. And had such songs been sung in the ground during the Brentford game, as was alleged, I would have heard them from my seat, tucked in behind the Brentford dug-out. But I didn’t.
The one allegation that has been corroborated by unconnected sources is that a single-figure number of Celtic fans in the “New Inn” – one of the pubs to be found on each corner of Griffin Park – started up such a song and were quickly shouted down by other Celtic fans in the pub. This is conceivable, although it took some days to establish whether these fans started up a song or some chanting or made offensive remarks about the murdered soldier. Before the game, I passed all four “corner” pubs. Three of them were packed, with dozens of Celtic fans having to drink outside, supervised in a close but low-key by the police. The New Inn was a different scenario. From the moment I turned onto the New Road, I could hear the noise…make that the din…from the New Inn and its immediate environs. From a pitch-length away, I could see flags waving & the glint of an indeterminate shiny object. And the street was so packed I suspected there might be no way through. It was packed with three things; Celtic fans, police… and all kinds of ‘empties,’ predominantly beer cans and fast food containers. In short, a mess. I soon discovered that the New Inn opened at nine o’clock that morning, which explained just about everything…including claims that the ‘Lee Rigby song/chants/comments’ came from this large, largely inebriated gathering.
Yet the atmosphere was not only raucous but, in journalese, “good-natured.” For example, my Roscommon Gaelic Football shirt attracted humorously sympathetic attention. Roscommon is my parents’ …and The IT Crowd star Chris O’Dowd’s …native county and their Gaelic Football team have frankly been a bit sh*te lately. And the “indeterminate shiny object”? A large, possibly life-sized, replica of the European Cup, impressively-enough made to look authentic in the many photos being taken with it. There were Celtic fans who could only be described as ‘strewn’ across the pavements from the New Inn along the main Ealing Road. There was a picnic look, if not atmosphere, to this mass of humanity. And there were dozens of Celtic fans, including the friend who got me a ticket for the match, outside the Royal Horse Guardsman pub, the current ‘home’ of West London’s CSC.
From here, I could see a considerable proportion of the Celtic following in the 90 minutes before kick-off and was, I believe, able to make a reasoned assessment of their behaviour. “Raucous and loud” was still about right. And this was mostly, though not entirely, in a good way. Passers-by and non-football fans would understandably have been taken aback by this sight and sound. But those who passed me by did so without hassle, and often with a cheery-sounding if indecipherable greeting or humble apology – at least as humble as an apology can be from the chain-smoking Glaswegian in a green kilt who was stood near us. Less cheery were the half-dozen or so fans who viewed the local buses as an opportunity to bang on windows and scream “Mon the Hoops!” at startled passengers and drivers. And while “doing the huddle in the Champions League” at Celtic Park (and in the Bill Axbey Stand later on) was a sight to behold, “doing the huddle” in the middle of Ealing Road’s busy post-lunch traffic wasn’t so bright.
Inside the ground, the singing was like nothing I’ve ever heard before, especially not at a pre-season friendly between two second-strings. The Celtic singing never stopped during the first half-hour, refusing to miss a beat even when Brentford took the lead – a memory which will make me smile to my final days. The Celtic songbook has never been to my taste; especially not during my first occasional forays to Celtic Park in the late 1980s. Then, many of the ditties were transparently “pro-IRA.” Thankfully, in recent years, these songs have become aurally marginalised. ‘IRA’ references were still depressingly inserted into certain songs – as if The Fields of Athenry wasn’t bad enough already. And I still believe 70s centre-back Davie Hay crops up in Celtic songs because of what Hay rhymes with (Paul McStay, meanwhile, lifted so many Celtic sides from the depths of Anton Rogan-esque mediocrity that he deserves a songbook all his own).
But at Brentford, tales of “James McGrory and Paul McStay” not “men behind the wire” filled the afternoon. Some people interpret The Fields of Athenry as ‘pro-IRA.’ Personally, I’d have it down in the ‘interminable dirge’ column. It’s about a chap called Michael who was transported to Australia during the potato famine in 1840s Ireland, leaving his wife Mary behind. And…er…that’s it. If it’s pro-anything at all, it’s pro-sleep. Three days before the game, however, I was singing it. My late uncle requested it be played as his funeral cortege proceeded along a West London high street during rush hour. Those who knew the words sang them, in his memory. And if you want to tell me that our family spent our Wednesday morning singing ‘pro-IRA songs’ you can fuck right off.
Which brings us back to the “fireworks and drunks” on the Brentford pitch. Both were wrong. And the pyrotechnics which accompanied Celtic to Brentford and their Champions League ties against Cliftonville were against the laws of safety, consideration for others and…Uefa. Drunks and flares “add” equally little “atmosphere” to football matches, despite apologists’ claims, and if Uefa sanction Celtic for letting off flares during both Cliftonville games then…good. The phrase “throwing flares onto the pitch” may evoke oddball images of unfashionable 1970s trousers flying through the air. But Uefa sanctions are no joke. I cannot comment on the post-match ‘pitch invasion’, as I had to leave the game fifteen minutes early and only heard BBC Radio London’s commentators express initial concerns before deciding the invasion was, yes, ‘good-natured.’ This is borne out by the videos and photos I have subsequently seen.
So, was the day “more likely to be remembered for the worst scenes of crowd disturbance at the ground for a long time?” as the Hounslow Chronicle newspaper’s Chris Longhurst suggested in his, erm, ‘emotive’ reporting? He wrote of the “mayhem” of the post-match pitch invasion, with its “confrontations with players,” “ugly jeers” and “attempts to break” the goalposts. And he waxed disapprovingly of Celtic fans “showing visible signs of being drunk and out of control” long before kick-off and “thoughtlessly” discarding “bottles and fast-food packaging everywhere.” What I encountered chimed with little of that. And the grand total of police arrests, two (that’s TWO), doesn’t chime with this imagery either. The police were determinedly ‘light-touch’ which, I believe, kept that number down. But if Celtic fans’ behaviour had been that bad, there would have been more than two arrests, however ‘light-touch’ the policing. Equally, Celtic fans prepared to overlook or whitewash the examples of poor behaviour that I also encountered are wrong too.
Before the publication of a certain recent novel, I often quoted a phrase When Saturday Comes used to explain sensationalised football coverage: “Shades of grey do not make good copy.” There were certainly plenty of shades to Celtic fans’ behaviour on Saturday. Occasionally fabulous, occasionally stupid, occasionally offensive but mostly fine. But, basically, I saw 6,000 raucous football supporters behave as I’ve seen 6,000 raucous football supporters behave in the past and will probably do so again in the future. Nothing less. And certainly nothing more.
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