Archive for the ‘Celtic Football Club’ Category

Boys outside the Ground

The Boys outside the Ground

This firsthand account of a weekend in the Bosnian capital has been kindly donated by my good (Celtic supporting) friend Chris Tait, following his trip earlier in the year.  Following on from the Internal War earlier in the month with my Koln article – this piece recounts an unforgettable journey to a city recovering from its own past struggles for independence.

The average tourist wants to go somewhere where there are no tourists. I am no different. However, the paradox for the modern traveller is that whilst the emergence of budget airlines has transformed accessibility to new places, it does so to the masses making it difficult to find a truly unique destination. So after studying the route map in the in-flight magazine en route to London Gatwick, I realised that as my final destination was in the grey area of an otherwise easyjet orange Europe, I knew this trip was going to be different.

An overnight stay in London and a connection in Budapest later we arrived in Sarajevo. This was not the stereotypical weekend city break and it had raised a few eyebrows before we set off. At the heart of our trip was to be the local derby between FK Željeznicar Sarajevo (Željo) v FK Sarajevo, a fixture, prior to 1992 played within the Yugoslavian league, now the biggest derby in Bosnia and widely considered one of the main city derbies in South Eastern Europe.

Our host and former Strathclyde University classmate, well connected within the Bosnian football, picked us up from the airport. On the way to our city centre hotel it was clear that the outskirts of the city are still divided into ethnic enclaves and that legacy of the war was still etched on many buildings. However, there were more than a few modern buildings, standing tall, proud, reflecting the autumn sunshine and perhaps the hope of a population with deep emotional scars.
With barely enough time to check in to hotel, we quickly made our way Stadion Grbavica to catch a glimpse of Željo’s final training session before the derby the following day. The fact that manager Amar Osim had delayed the session, risking training in the dark (insufficient funds to switch the floodlights on), to ensure we could attend was the first sign of the unbelievable hospitality we would go on to enjoy throughout the trip.

At stadium the team were training on a muddy pitch, not atypical of Sunday league pitch in Glasgow in December, adjacent to the main stand. A few fans peered through the fence watching their heroes, whom included Hearts record £850k signing Mirsad Bešlija. If it wasn’t for the intervention of Amar, the security guard would not have let us in. Apparently pre-match security had been heightened in an attempt to eliminate the threat of fireworks being smuggled into the stadium in advance of the derby.

We watched the training session before entering the stadium itself. It was clear to see that Stadion Grbavica was symbolic of Sarajevo, with the modern North stand, in keeping with post Taylor report stadia in the UK, in stark contrast to the open aired South stand which, in the misty dusk sky, looked as though it had a haunting story to tell. It was quickly explained that the stadium suffered heavy structural damage during the war as it occupied a strategic position between the first front lines. The South stand, embedded within Šamac Hill, was proliferated with Serb forces who used this position to burn the wooden terraces and target the citizens of Grbavica area behind the North Stand.

Getting ready to mix with the locals at the Tuborg

After the stadium tour, we headed to a couple of bars before settling in Tuborg Café. Tuborg Café is popular with the Maniacs (Željo ultras) so it was the ideal place to get further immersed in the big match build up. Both the cheap beer and the ‘healthy stuff’ (an unknown Balkan shot!) which accompanied every round had a notable impact on both our balance and ability to talk coherently. This actually worked to our advantage as we were soon integrating well with the Maniacs, even making a credible attempt to join in their singing and dancing! They were delighted to welcome us and even went to the effort of arranging for exclusive maniac merchandise to be brought to the bar for us.

Amar, sporting his Željo tracksuit, and his management team soon appeared at the bar. We politely declined his offer of tickets for the North Stand explaining our preference to join our new friends in the South Stand! Amar sat mingling with the Maniacs for a couple of hours before leaving. This guy eats, sleeps and drinks football and, having managed Jef United in Japan, it is obvious that his current tenure is out of love and loyalty for his home town / club rather than career progression…unless of course this is part of a strategy to become the next Bosnia manager!

The following hours were somewhat blurry but we got back to the hotel to get some much needed rest. No sooner had we gone to bed than it was match day and we were up reviewing the memorabilia and pictures which enabled us to piece together the night before. We were all in agreement that the ‘healthy stuff’ may not be so healthy after all and we made a pact that we would not be indulging today.

Our next challenge was to go to find Ćevapdžinica “Željo”, a famous traditional place specializing in the local delicacy of Bosnian ćevap. As we walked through the Austro-Hungarian quarter into the old bazaar it became obvious as to why Sarajevo is often referred to as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Until recently, it was the only major European city to have a mosque, cathedral, Orthodox Church and synagogue within the same vicinity and we encountered this rich cultural and religious heritage in the short 5 minute walk to Željo Ćevapdžinica. Our efforts were rewarded with the ultimate hangover cure that is ćevap (little meat balls made from a mix of beef and lamb served in bread with a natural yogurt on the side) which did not disappoint.

Inspired by the religious epicenter and our new found meat miracle we convinced ourselves that Tuborg Café, our rendezvous point for the big game, was a pleasant strong along the Miljacka River so we set off by foot. During our walk we stumbled across the location where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, in 1914, an event which ultimately started the First World War.

We continued along the course of the river, along what was once known as Sniper Alley, pausing frequently to survey war damaged buildings, roads and pavements. Some still appear like raw open wounds, while others have been healed but remain with permanent scars. It is difficult to comprehend what happened in Sarajevo and our pre-match conversation, as we walked, was somber and contemplative.

The most notable site we encountered on our walk was the Holiday Inn Hotel, the famous location where the first shots were fired, by Serb forces, to break up a peace rally. Shortly after this incident 18,000 Serb forces and the Yugoslav People’s Army encircled Sarajevo from the surrounding hills. As his family in Sarajevo faced Serbian bombardment we reflected upon Ivica Osim’s decision to resign from his position as manager of the Yugoslav national team: a team led to the quarter final of the World Cup Finals less than two years earlier. “My country doesn’t deserve to play in the European Championship (1992),” said Osim, “On the scale of human suffering, I cannot reconcile events at home with my position as national manager.” Yugoslavia was subsequently banned from the tournament and their replacements, Denmark, went on to with it.

Opposite the Holiday Inn we stopped to pay our respects at a memorial site for Zeljo’s legendary kapo (Dzevad “Djilda” Begic). We saw a graffiti mural of him at the Stadion Grbavica the day before but this time where were confronted with the exact spot where he was shot by a sniper whilst trying to help an injured female pensioner 2 months into the siege. It seemed a somewhat fitting tribute that three guys from Glasgow had embarked upon a journey to support his team and with that we were reminded that we had people to meet, beer to drink and a South Eastern European derby to go to.


The Sarajevo Derby

We arrived at Tuborg Café where we received a warm welcome from our host, his friends and the maniacs from the night before. Before we could utter the word ‘hello’ we were presented with a beer and shot of the ‘healthy stuff’. We reluctantly accepted and before long we had fully embraced the highly charged atmosphere. We had been advised that individuals within our company had been physically wounded during the conflict but it did not seem appropriate to raise the subject. What struck me though was that these were normal guys, like you and me, and what they lacked was choice. They did not go to war, war came to them.

Tuborg Café, in what is essentially, a housing scheme, felt like the heart of Bosnia as the maniacs sang along to the club anthems booming out of the sound system with pride and passion. Still daylight, a few of them tested their cache by setting off a flare in the street outside as the build-up reached fever pitch.

A few drinks later, it would have been more if we had not walked from the city centre; we negotiated our way around a few tower blocks to be reintroduced to Stadion Grbavica. The eery silence of the night before had been replaced with a bubbly inferno of tension and excitement. The perimeter of the stadium was guarded by a line of riot police. With a ban on away fans in the Bosnian league (brought about by an attack on the Željo team and fans at an away game a couple of weeks before) there were rumours that the FK Sarajevo fans were still going to attend.

The entrance to the South stand was basic and akin to a junior football stadium in Scotland. After filtering through the turnstile (where we presented our £2 match ticket), passing a security check, walking across a derelict basketball court (yes, inside the stadium!) and climbing up a 2 foot ledge of cracked and crumbled concrete, we were in. A glance to the left, the South stand was curved around the pitch like a packed amphitheatre. To the right, beyond a replica locomotive (there as an acknowledgement to the fact that the club was formed by group of railway workers) the North stand had indeed a pocket of 750 or so away fans whom had paid at the gate and shepherded themselves over to the area they would ordinarily be entitled to. An ad hoc police and steward team had formed to ensure the stand was segregated.

Despite the religious tensions in Bosnia and indeed Sarajevo, Željo v Sarajevo is more of a neighborhood and class based rivalry focused on an old difference between the town’s elite and working class. During the post-conflict Sarajevo had close ties to current political elite in Bosnia as it did with local municipal leaders prior to the aggression on Bosnia and Željo is rooted in the working class, this derby came to represent the “conservative centripetal forces”. Although today both clubs enjoy the support of the rich and poor, the legacy still runs deep. Religious tension is more profound when Zeljo play last season’s champions FK Borac Banja Luka.

The South Stand is two tiered with the seated area and terracing divided by a 10 foot wall lined with banners. We walked around the terracing area before entering the seated area. In the South stand, the tradition, if it has not been melted by a flare, is to stand on the seat so we duly assumed our perilous positions. The kapo and his deputy were organising proceedings from the terracing area. Complete with a sailor hat and a sound system they patrolled the terracing area to conduct their choir of thousands. Amar, whom is nonchalance, personified, in his derby day attire of shoes, denims and a jumper orchestrated his team from the sideline.

It was clear from the start that football is an outlet for Željo fans. The guy directly next to me, whom was on his own, literally sang his heart out. For long periods, his eyes were closed with his head transfixed on the crisp night sky. He meant every word he sang. This was raw emotion which transcended the beautiful game. At various points during the game, in following the instructions of the kapo, I jumped, locked arms and cuddled this guy. There was no small talk, no smiling, this was about football and the story behind the words to the songs.

The game itself was a poor spectacle and the current Zeljo side, I imagine, are a shadow of the team Ivica Osim led to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in 1984 / 85. However, I will be forever grateful for the own goal scored by Sarajevo in the 34th minute. A cross from the right deflected off of the defender and looped into the net right in front of our position in the South Stand. Bang. The place exploded! The pre match security efforts had clearly failed as 10, 20 or maybe even 30 flares lit up in a spontaneous bonfire. The scarves we got from the maniacs came in handy to mask the cloud of smoke that had engulfed the South stand. I couldn’t fathom whether this was heaven or hell! As the smoke refused to lift, all you could see were more and more flares sparkling like matches. When your visibility is obscured your other senses take over and although I was comfortable with the sounds of traditional rockets I was not prepared for the air bombs which provided deafening explosions.

Boom! The noise echoed around Sarajevo city offering the sound of celebration rather than the sound of death. Ironically it was the 5th November and I never would have thought that I was going to be a Guy in the middle of a bonfire.

BOOM! – Doesn’t quite do it justice……

Over 5 minutes passed before the pitch was visible and it was a relief to see Željo were still leading 1-0. The passion and enthusiasm from the home fans continued and we left ruing what might have been if Željo converted a 74th minute penalty. Having been reduced to 10 men the Sarajevo fans, resigned to losing the game, started their own pyrotechnics display from the North stand. Flares and rockets landed on a small area of the pitch and a, part brave and part stupid, steward had responsibility to remove them from the less than impressive playing surface. As he performed his duties, more flares and rockets rained over his head. At one point, a Zeljo player beat two players and a flare to get a cross in!

After the full time whistle we remained in situ to catch our breath and, in the now clean air, reflect on an unbelievable experience. Our voices, hoarse from singing a combination of Željo and Celtic words to familiar tunes (i.e. Artur Boruc, the holy goalie), and limbs fighting off cramp, I glanced at the scoreboard and realised that Stadion Grbavica, once a place of sorrow, for today, was a place of unbridled joy for Željo and its supporters.

There were minor skirmishes as we met where the Sarajevo fans had exited the stadium but it was well controlled by the intimidating looking riot police and things passed off fairly amicably. The emotional and physical exertions of the day left us with enough energy for some local food and a couple of beers away from the partying fans.

The next day, Amar arranged for us to watch the Motherwell V Celtic game in Tuborg Café. For once, the football coverage in the bar was accompanied by commentary, rather than Europop, and this was a subtle mark of respect for which we were most grateful. We sat and talked about the Zeljo game, Japanese football, Koki Mizuno (whom he managed), Bosnia’s chances in the Euro 2012 play off against Portugal, Edin Dzeko (the best player he had managed) and of course Glasgow Celtic Football Club. We then celebrated our weekend wins in a beautiful restaurant in the hills overlooking Sarajevo and since then both clubs have surged to the top of their respective leagues.

On the Monday, before flying home, we had time to revisit Željo Ćevapdžinica for one last ćevap as well as meet with footballing legend Ivica Osim. I had met Ivica a number of years ago at Old Trafford where his Sturm Graz team, whom knocked Rangers out, faced Manchester United in the second group stages. He then went on to manage Jef United (Japan) and succeed Zico as the manager of the Japanese national side where he retired through ill health. Last year he was appointed head of an interim committee to run the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina after it was suspended from all international competitions for refusing to replace its three-member presidency – made up of a Bošniak, a Croat and a Serb – with a single president. This situation epitomises the current situation in Bosnia, where to keep the country at peace and avoid potential conflict, decision making is devolved to a local level or shared when it comes to nationwide interests.

We had a weekend to remember in Sarajevo and I would argue that it is one of the safest European cities I have visited. Despite high levels of unemployment, there is no obvious, lurking underclass. The people were genuinely delighted to meet us and proud that we had come to their city. The accommodation, food and drink are cheap and there are plenty of interesting places to visit. It is not the easiest place to get to but it is only a matter of time before this fascinating city is made more accessible from the UK. I hope this happens sooner rather than later as, after the recent suffering, the city deserves a fairer hand and the injection of tourist income would offer a glimmer of hope for the future.


It is a year since I left Cologne after a long weekend spent, in the main, testing kolsch and integrating into the city and culture with my fellow travellers. A city which has never left me since, and for which my psyche harks at me to return at my earliest convenience. In the month’s leading up to that trip, we took the obvious choice of adopting FC Koln and keeping abreast of their present status – unfortunately, our trip was arranged the week following the final game of season 2010/11 and the Billy Goats had safely navigated their way to tenth place aided by the 30-goal haul of Milivoje Novakovic and Lukas Podolski.

A year on, black smoke engulfs the stands and the air of the North Rhine-Westphalia – through the smog “Poldi” attempts a somber farewell to the fans who have never doubted his love and endeavours during his two spells, while we await the white puff which will signal a new dawn.
The Billy Goats are so readily open house for negative press – some of which is brought upon itself – but it seems too easy to stand from afar and take pot shots at the wounded animal. In an attempt to readdress the balance, here is the remnants of the season from the heart of the club – the fans, the loyal inhabitants of the RheinEnergie stadion and the cities brauhaus’.

At times, they admit the responsibility of being a supporter, more akin to a soldier being drafted for war rather than a fruitful experience.  Stormy Cologne – storms in the sky, in the stand and within the squad and boardroom. The atmosphere seemed toxic during some games. A number of fans grew restless and rebelled early on – fighting, behaving unlike followers of the club at away games and attacking opposition buses. What were they trying to achieve or furthermore, prove? They preempted the decline and reacted with an unnatural and uncharacteristic showing of hatred – they were not taking the “decline” well – Andy (45) noted the behaviour as outrageous. Köln need a fresh injection of life and spirit – they are forever being publicly dragged through the mud, the tyre tracks leave behind a debris of self-destruction and bad blood sifting through the very core. “Oda” – the fan who was the inspiration behind the story – doesn’t care about returning straight back to the top league if it’s not going to be progressive for the long-term ambition of the club.
Early November & in a break from my domestic blogging duties from the East End of Glasgow – the strong reverberations of departure surrounding the prodigal son of a German city not long visited, captures my immediate attentions. I dissect the players’ past, present & future and focus on the impact in Cologne and further afield, should this talk become a reality. To my amazement, the article is received well in many corners, including in Germany, where natives, fluent in both their own and English tongue, thankfully and graciously took the time to engage and review. Oda, became a regular crux during the season and her friends, now included, give their version of an eventful and eventually, exasperating campaign.
21.11.2011 Currently with sixteen points from a possible thirty-six – Köln are performing admirably if not inspirationally, as Jörn (41) reflects on a team spirit visible then, but totally defunct in 2012. The club is due to play at home to Mainz – when all other games have kicked off in the afternoon, I check the updates and am dumbstruck to find the match was postponed. The referee, Babak Rafatti, was found in his hotel room prior to the match, alive but in a desperate state due to an earlier suicide attempt. Even though it was such a heartbreaking and horrendous event, it seemed almost coincidental that it would happen to this team – Oda noted Rafatti is one of the more constant and favoured referees of the Köln faithful after the dust had settled.

Earlier that week, club legend and former West German international, Wolfgang Overath, bewildered the FC Faithful by standing down as club president along with his two vice-chairs. Not only was the scenario described to me as “haywire” – in the aftermath of the board meeting in which Overath had resigned, he described the “close working relationship” of Volker Finke & head coach Stale Solbakken, and his prediction of “future successes with this partnership.” At the time it didn’t add up, and reading the reflections of the fans, many of whom brandished the Norwegian as “stupid”, & “stubborn”, it seems to add weight to the rumours of internal disruptions which were crippling the infrastructure. Next up, Derby time against Gladbach!
25.11.2011 The fans are in mood for revenge – previous meetings do not bode well, and Köln are looking for retribution for last season’s 4-0 & 5-1 nightmares. But there is a strong sense of confidence and excitement in the Cathedral city air – despite the off-field disruptions, the Billy Goats must be due some good luck on it.
25.11.2011 (A few hours later) “Oh my f***ing goodness!” I received this e-mail halfway through watching a film starring Gina Carrano & Michael Fassbender in which the tagline read “They left her no choice” – much akin to what Oda was doing as she watched on in the stands. The title of the film has already been utilised in this article to describe the club’s season – its hard to disagree. The rest of the week was spent licking wounds – old ones not yet healed, but brutally opened again and doused in acidity as Monchengladbach inflicted their rivals to three of their best with little or no resistance.
She later describes “Micha” the goalkeeper, as again, “the poorest Bugger on the pitch” – I take this as double-edged, as he not only deals with the heavy burden when picking the ball from the net on many occasions, but also of playing behind a desperate defence, light on protection for their number one. The keeper himself comes out publicly, in hope of a reaction, to condemn the side and insist they have “no balls for the fight!” – it seems to have an adverse reaction.
From this period on there is a worrying lack of communication, with a heavy calendar in December before the winter break, it seems the virus working its way through the team has hit Oda. She doesn’t have the fight or reserves to maintain an outlook for outsiders never mind her own. The team itself musters up a recovery of sorts fearing an all out backlash from the fans with two score draws sandwiched between an impressive and out of character four nil resounding win at home to Freiburg – although few & far between, for a side with the history and reputation of FC, victories like these against teams newer to this environment should have been a necessity.
One last tie on the 16th of December & it was a seasonal gift come prematurely for Bayern Munich – who also received the crown of winter champion. Even with an early red card for Franck Ribery reducing Der FCB to ten, FC Köln refused to spoil their hosts finery and left the Allianz virtually untouched, keeping their paws away from the silver and leaving their advisories to sign off with a resounding three nil victory. The game never seemed in doubt & the psychological and physical edge an extra pair of legs gives a side seemed lost on a disjointed Köln side. Their fans left in small numbers, deflated and with no sense of pride left for their team. Things would need to change in the rueckrunde, attitudes especially had to be looked at, and the lacklustre performances had to be addressed.
This was the turning point for the article, if there was no further communication between now and the end of the campaign, this would be nothing more than an outsiders perspective on the season. I sent an e-mail with just under a week until the Bundesliga was underway again asking for the fans expectations for the remaining matches. Thankfully a response was forthcoming – the fans are now excited despite the start of the slump in form recently and hopeful of acquiring a mid-table berth come May. The faithful were also looking to next season, the development and introduction of a youthful set-up would be key to the long-term goals of the club. In May, the outlook although bleaker was of a similar belief – the short-term future of the team would be bedding in younger players with the drive and sheer determination to resurrect FC, also to fill in the positional gaps left through the departures of more senior and experienced players.

The narrow loss away to Wolfsburg barely seemed to register as the rumours surrounding the cities’ most famous son resurfaced again – this time from a far more unlikely source than previous stories had emerged. The frictions which remained between Russia & Poland – with Podolski being of Polish decent himself – seemed to suggest a move to the former USSR and the emerging oil wealth country, was a remote one. Poldi stayed in the news that week but unfortunately, Köln’s wall was now ready to crumble.

Despite opening the scoring for the team at the RheinEnergie stadion, the clubs number ten fought through the pain barrier for the majority of the Schalke match which neither aided the side in the short or long-term. The ’04 eased their way into the game & eventually ran out comfortable winners by four goals to one. The ramifications of this match shook the clubs foundations to breaking point as news of Podolski’s injury reverberated around the city – a month without their talisman beckoned.

Oda tried to remain positive, hopeful that the German internationals absence would be an opportunity for others to stake their claim for a start and for the rest of the team to begin taking more responsibility. Andy was fully aware and worried about the lack of responsible aptitude which was displayed throughout the campaign, with none of the players accepting their tasks – which was borne of a culture throughout the team where no punishments were forthcoming no matter the crime.
Again an away win against a truly desperate Kaiserslautern side did little to convince fans or onlookers of Köln’s resolve or ambition to remain in the top-tier. Oda admitted the three points were an almighty struggle to obtain, but she was still hopeful the team were willing to fight – perhaps the confidence which a win brings would carry some momentum.
18.2.2012 Fingers, toes and whatever else can be crossed, are, in the hope of back to back wins for the first time since late September as the Billy Goats travel to Nurnberg. In the cities’ squares, brahaus’ and beer gardens there is a sense of joviality as the carnival is in full swing. The previous evening, pictures circulated with Poldi and Köln native Michael Schumacher enjoying themselves with what seemed like, no troubles in the world. Under the surface, for many like them the festivities added only as a temporary distraction from what was becoming a fairly tumultuous period. On the bench for the Lautern tie was Jong Tae-Se – a Korean forward from Bochum – ,who was brought in not by the coach, but general manager Finke without even a consultation with the man seemingly in charge of footballing affairs. Georg (41 ) summed up Solbakken as a stubborn man, who acted like a child when he did not get his way – the manner in which this transaction was carried out would do little to suppress this.

In retrospect Oda and the gang were confident going into this match, the two one defeat although not entirely surprising, dampened the carnival atmosphere in the city. A group of the players perhaps also still in a state of bemusement, choose to unwind at a nightclub at the tail end of the weekends celebrations. The trouble which flared at this juncture was one brought on by underlying tensions not just with the players but the fans as well. At any other time this may have blown over harmlessly, the professionals would have acted in a manner which was apposite – the intoxicated supporter eventually seeing sense through a peacekeeping associate. As Andy (45 ) pointed out – the attitude which ran through the side was one of nonchalant disregard for the consequences – this was now becoming an off-field issue as well as a footballing one.
25.2.2012 The outlook of the regular FC fan for matches was now of the negative variety – there was no hope, no rituals or prayers which could turn things round. Positive thoughts & energies can breed positivity – the flip side, well, that doesn’t instill much confidence let’s say. The e-mail is titled – “In my head – defeated again” as Oda prepared to head to the stands for conscription No 12.
26.2.2012 Another defeat – truly devastated is all that is mustered, further review would only bring to the surface any rage or heartbreak which was locked away. The unrelenting ties which bind you to your football club are as strong as the padlocks which adorn the cities’ main bridge over the Rhein. The only three certain truths in life are your mother, father and football team Frank points out, no matter how bad they feel – they will live or die by their side, the red and white will always run through them.
1.3.2012 One of the first notable anxieties facing a fan worried about the drop, is despairingly waiting and hoping on other results going your way. It is already red alert in Köln before the one all draw in Hoffenheim, as Freiburg and Hertha Berlin record wins and with their extra two points, move FC closer to the lower seats. The subject line prior to the match was amended from “defeat” to “win” and despite the results elsewhere, the avoidance of a loss was good for morale within the fans, if not the team itself.
10.3.2012 The energy coming from the latest mail obviously reverberated to the pitch – the excitement hard to contain, perhaps nerves also played a part in the jovial pre-match notes. Back in front of their own fans, Köln faced their faced real six-pointer of the season against fellow relegation candidates, Hertha Berlin. The one nil victory was succeeded with a quite uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion from Solbakken as he ran onto the pitch, arms raised defiantly, congratulating his players and soaking up the adulation of the vehement support.

What followed that evening was a great surprise to the fans, but perhaps not to the manager as the man who brought him to the club, Volker Finke was sacked as sporting director. At the time I wrote an article in the aftermath of the events which dominated Köln’s weekend, noting the removal of Finke as a message from the board that they had nailed the colours truly to the mast for Germany to see, firmly putting their weight behind the Norwegian boss for the foreseeable future. No love was lost between the two since the normally friendly, calm & collected Stale Solbakken, arrived in the summer – he complained to the board about the amount of influence Finke was trying to have on his decisions, and also his eagerness to openly discuss in-house discussions with the all too involved press hounds. Later on I was commended for my piece with Oda adding about the change in attitude and direction that those recent 90 minutes had positively had on the fate of the club.
17.3.2012 One of the toughest trips of the Bundesliga season came with what would have previously been the not so daunting trip to Hannover 96 – Mirko Slomka and his Reds – up until the end of the campaign, recorded the only unbeaten home record in the German top division. FC kept with their coat tails for the first forty-five but ended up on the end of a four one demolition in the second half. Hopefully the players weren’t beginning to wave the white flag. Next up though, BVB, who were playing like an unstoppable bullet train, only stopping momentarily to discard the remnants of their most recent victim’s – and the next approaching stadium was the RheinEnergie Stadion. Hope you’re sitting comfortably…..

26.3.2012 Oda is living in a nightmare, which is being played out horribly by a cast of amateur actors – the last act was a train wreck, Dortmund weren’t in any mood to stay behind and clear up. They had done irreparable damage. She was lost, and still is, lost for words – a royal horror show, where we know who ends up with the crown and who is living off precious little scraps. Again, frustratingly, Köln make a more than decent showing for the first half – holding the league leaders a goal apiece going into the break. Now is the time for manager’s to make their impact – the half-time team-talk – forcing their displeasures, rules, admiration, crockery, and whatever else on their troops who are soaking up the instructions, gearing up and focusing on the 2nd part of the battle. The rearguard held out for not very long at all, as holes behind the defence were probed and prodded with little resistance as five Borrusia attacks were comfortably converted to leave the home fans dumbfounded and dejected.

In the last six home matchdays, the Billy Goats had went into the break either in an advantageous position or held the other side and only taken four points from a possible eighteen – nowhere near good enough for a side looking to maintain their Bundesliga status. As Andy described the season as a rollercoaster – the unpredictability and ups and downs the fans were even experiencing during matches themselves must have left them feeling like they were going through an emotional wringer.

Things on the home front in Paradise were not making my German friend feel much better – she wishes she had my worries, which were at the time coming to terms with a domestic treble dream ending in a League Cup final defeat to Kilmarnock, and losing out on the chance to clinch the league title on your greatest rivals backyard – not the greatest week in my own 2011-12 diary, but certainly not as desperate as facing possible impending demotion. Next Saturday she now bills as the most important of the whole season – to watch or stay below cover?

31.3.2012 FC Augsburg were not mathematically safe, but they had put themselves on a good footing with a series of impressive outings since their promotion last season. Would the pressure of a surely fired-up and desperate Köln eleven, be a bridge too far for the new recruits of the Bundesliga? Unfortunately for our FC faithful, Augsburg again performed admirably and without fear, winning two one and sending Koln to a third straight defeat. Our group of fans sit in disbelief – as they nurse their Kölsch’s – the thick air of despondency is broken with a rallying call, – “A New Game means New Luck!” – hopefully they were not running on empty.

07.4.2012 The fighting spirit which had been evident in the earlier part of the season, showed some resurgence at home to Werder Bremen. This was one of the things Jörn was proud of then, and a break from the listlessness he had endured in the rueckrunde was a nice change in this one all draw. The business end of the season is not referred to as such for no reason, the players need to roll their sleeves up and buckle down to ensure every blade of grass is disturbed and the paying public are assured the determination they put in is reciprocated.

10.4.2012 Pathetic. Lost for words. Sick. Disgusted. Disarray. Lack of discipline. Do these players want to stay here? Playing the big matches, paid handsomely, and enjoy life? Mainz – the carnival club – make a mockery of their visitors racing into a three goal lead before taking it easy in the second period and inflicting only one more dagger to the heart of this side – then again, perhaps that organ was not beating through the team? The fans have had their share and want out, but there is no early escape clause – we can’t fast forward to the summer and find out the result. As I said to Oda, whatever performances are produced, in these final stages of the season the next four games are vital – and the fans have to stay strong.
15.4.2012 The illness is spreading, we are in a critical state and Borussia Monchengladbach turn up to play, Marco Reus dazzling the tired and weary FC players with some succulent skills. Solbakken is gone – too little, too late? A new coach is brought in, but he is an old head and had been in charge before. I feel like saying that perhaps this decision should have already been taken, or left till the end of May – but what use is this, like teaching a fish how to swim.

21.4.2012 The new man in charge issues a defiant and strong call to arms – the club, the fans and the players need to stick together – a siege mentality has to be implemented. Oda admits her responsibility and heads to her seat for the penultimate home fixture of a tumultuous season. She would rather stay in bed, hear and see nothing. My fingers are crossed – Regards from – in every respect – stormy Cologne….

22.4.12 Home to Stuttgart – the team, the fans fought back positively. Gave place a lift and looked as though performance could kick-start a revival scene – the point was well deserved and the energies from the stands and players were relentless from the first whistle – the excitement is building for the trip to Freiburg with Köln sitting out of the bottom two but in the play-off position. A draw, I feel would be good as SC have a good record in front of their own fans – with Gladbach playing Augsburg, it is not impossible that FC could drag themselves out from the desperate situation they have played themselves into.

28.4.2012 The final whistle has just gone – all I get in my inbox : I AM FED UP! (There were more exclamations than that but it looked untidy.) It was a tough one to take, Podolski dragged his team back into the match in the second half but again, the defence was unable to absorb any penetration and they capitulated again. A win next week and FC avoid immediate relegation and have the saving grace of two matches against the third placed side from Bundesliga.2 who will be foaming at the mouth for the wins. As the carrot dangles for them, Köln have their own next week, at home to the runners-up in the league – FC Bayern Munich. They are due to star in the Champions League final and DFB Pokal showpiece finale after this last league game and have already been resting.some star players. These preparations stand Köln in good stead, but already on numerous occasions this season – the team have been guilty of shooting themselves in the foot.

05.5.2012 Not since matchday three, have Köln been occupying either of the automatic relegation spots – even now, in the thirty-fourth and final week, they are still in sixteenth position and two points ahead of Hertha. It’s them or FC, Kaiserslautern are long gone and awaiting their companion to ease the journey into the tough world of 2.Bundesliga. Wishing the day away, Oda has been contemplating life out of the top-tier all through the night – the many connotations and permutations causing her brain to not even allow the contemplation of sleep. The weather is in the home teams favour, Rain – which will make for an unpredictable surface and hopefully curtail the more gifted Bayern players and assist in evening out the playing field. But could the extra weight drown the already weary souls in white & red who have not at all points looked worthy of wearing the prestigious jersey?

A week later 11.5.2012 “……deeply upset. Devastated.”

As the fans dejectedly sift through the rubble, looking for any hope or salvation, they can be satisfied that they will still be in the stands however long it takes to return to the Bundesliga. Although a banner unveiled at the Bayern Munich game read – “Bye Poldi! We would leave too – if only we could!” – Oda, Jorn, Andy, Georg, Henrik, Frank and the thousands of other fans will all return next season and beyond, and travel to cities that previously they may never have heard of or knew existed. The reconstruction of Koln from board room level all the way through to the pitch, was already underway by the time I had begun this commentary, but hopefully the recovery is tread on a less treacherous path for all involved.

Celtic cannot allow media outlets, pundits and commentators to overshadow this seasons’ achievements, in what is turning out to be a league campaign which will be secured through sporting integrity, diligence and hard work.

Notwithstanding the 10 point deduction, Celtic were four points ahead of the game and powering home like a thoroughbred. Neil Lennon’s’ warriors galvanized, confident and with the momentum of a runaway train – are on an unbeaten run which has not been emulated since a decade past when Martin O’Neill’s inspiration guided his own Celtic team – captained by the current manager – to a domestic treble. A swing in the Bhoys favour of seventeen points had already been overturned in a whirlwind period of fifty-three winter days and had left Ally McCoist and his Rangers team on the ropes. The knockout blow was to come, and everyone in green & white and across the city knew it – The Valentine’s day rebuff from HMRC has only brought the celebrations forward, and likewise with my experience from the closing stages of the 1999/2000 season – Rangers fans will want the curtain drawn on 2011/2012 as soon as possible. The only way Celtic can end this campaign negatively, is with a winning margin which does not reflect their on-field superiority.

Hours before the Govan Road was turned into a scene reminiscent of the Kim Jong-Ill funeral procession, Peter Lawell mirrored the viewpoint of the majority of Celtic fans when stating that the club does not, and will not need a strong Rangers side in the SPL for its own survival. Furthermore, Celtic would see this as a building block to a resurgent, and successful period in its history, where it would look to not only dominate in Scotland – but to take a significant step in European competition.

In Lennon, Celtic have a man who learned from one of the great managers of our times, and an individual steeped in hooped history. In his time as manager, Neil Lennon has, even this season, been close to the brink. At half-time at Rugby Park I was even doubting his managerial credentials, but again he battled back and from the depths of despair, Celtic resurrected their season beyond most fans own wildest dreams.

The squad built by Neil and his scouting network is young, dynamic and full of quality. Against Hearts recently, in the four nil Tynecastle victory, the average age of the starting XI was 23 – a statistic even the boss would have not envisaged at the start of his reign, feeling experienced individuals such as Jimmy Bullard and David James would be more beneficial than pure raw talent with little big game experience. Alex Ferguson was able to prove to Alan Hansen, that kids can win trophies – on top of last season’s Scottish Cup triumph, this Celtic team can gain an enormous amount of confidence and self belief with a domestic treble, the destiny of which, is very much within the teams control. A team which grows year on year, and can add silverware to its ongoing development – is conducive to building a historic and legendary legacy much, like the Lisbon Lions and Jock Stein created for themselves.

The next level of progression has to be the Champions League and the elite European competition has produced many Jekyll and Hyde results in the last eleven or so years staggered participation. Gordon Strachan, was able to guide his team twice to the knockout stages where even O’Neill could not, with a mixture of homegrown talent and experience from further afield. Bankier and Lawell now need to stand by their man, and with their full support and the stability of the team, they could be writing their own history.

Only time will tell how fulfilling any future domination can bring if the ongoing downsizing at Rangers continues – that is why it is up to the rest of Scottish Football to step up and show they can cement a challenge worthy of the leagues continuing funding and support.

Hi, I’m Ken. Not Mark; Ken. Mark’s cousin. Mark’s cousin – Ken. Hi. Turns out there’s only so many times one can say “want me to write you a blog?” before somebody calls you on it and you fumble your excuse to get out of it. So I’m here and you’re here so let’s make the most of it.

Me and him

Ok, now that I’ve lost half of you I’ll get onto the point of the blog – my somewhat wayward take on the life of being a Celtic fan. Quick bit of background on me: I was born in Dundee and raised in England, so… Celtic was an obvious choice? I’ve had the usual jibes about following my local team since I first moved back to Scotland; to me though, being a fan is about the community and family that it represents. And my family – the ones I’ll acknowledge anyway – are all Celtic fans.

I’ve been to a few matches, but not many. I buy a Celtic top every couple of season (my next one is going to have Kenaldo on the back, because – damn) and watch as many games on TV as I can. I pay for Sky Sports and ESPN who pay for TV rights, so I’m still supporting the club in a roundabout way. Although, actually, by that logic, I’m also funding Castle Greyskull. Okay, scratch that last part! My cousin Mark though, who you’ll probably recognise as the owner of this blog, is a much bigger fan. Going to a match with him recently was… an experience. Ahem.

(I'm the stupid one)

I’m not a complete idiot, and I know the words to You’ll Never Walk Alone, though apparently trying to sing it in the style of a choirbhoy isn’t in keeping with the general atmosphere of the stand. Beyond that though, I’m lost. I know to jump up and down and clap and cheer when something good happens for the boys in green, and boo and hiss when the bluenose in black (or bright yellow; damn the ref’s away strip) makes a bad call.

When it comes to the rest of the Celtic songs though, I’m genuinely at a loss. There was one song that felt more like a game of vocal tennis which started off with one end of the stand shouting “Celtic” at the other end, only for them to say it back. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of that, they sang something different back to us and I got lost at that point. You know what Celtic Park requires? A damned hymn book. Just… something with some bloody lyrics or something. I spent the entire match in awe of how amazing the ‘regulars’ were at supporting our club from the stands. I was well out of my league. I’ve learnt more songs on Twitter in the past week than I have done at any point in my life before hand!


And it dawned on my this Sunday past (05/02/2012) just how global the fanbase of the Bhoys really is when everyone started going on about the Superbowl. I mean, I’ve seen Any Given Sunday but I’d never sat down to watch a game in my life, and looked all set to continue that habit this weekend. As it turns out however, one of the players on one of the teams just so happened to be a Celtic fan and my Twitter feed was ablaze with comments referring to Lawrence Tynes. Figuring I hadn’t had an excuse to stay up late muching on junk food in a while, I decided to try and get into the game and support an overseas Tim.

Turns out that supporting a team in a game of American football is even harder than it is a team at Paradise. At the tender age of 26 I’d finally realised what it must be like to be a woman having the offside rule explained. What was this nonsense? They kept substituting their entire team for an entirely different team depending on who had the “ball” [<- seriously?] and the what was described as a 60-minute match lasted the better part of 3 hours. And they had more commercials than a Classifieds section of the Argos catalogue. In a strange twist of fate, it turns out that despite being the decider of the National “Football” League – the biggest sport and sporting event in the country – most people watching the game prefer the commercials anyway. Wouldn’t get that watching the World Cup final I’d say! You know, proper football.


So yeah – I know sweet (S)FA about being a Celtic fan, less about American football, and couldn’t pick Lawrence Tynes out of a line-up with name tags. But he (/they) won, so the biggest sporting event in America somehow became all about a Celtic fan winning the Superbowl. I’m ok with that, but until he starts doing a conga or eating various childrens-party foodstuffs I’d like to think I’m at least a bigger fan that Mr Tynes. I have absolutely nothing on the Green Brigade or anyone that’s a Celtic Park regular. I shall soldier on though, and try to appreciate Celtic for the club that it is and the extended family it offers. I shall try to learn some words to some songs before I go back to Paradise to save getting curious looks from anyone who heard me and the elbow in the ribs from my rather embarrassed cousin. Ultimately, for the time being at least, I get to enjoy a good run of form from a club that I love and just can’t get enough of!

For more uninformed ramblings; sometimes about Celtic, sometimes it’s unclear; follow me on Twitter @kenhalfpenny

#HH, Mark!

New Striker Pawel Brozek

Celtic completed their transfer dealings with a day to spare as Pawel Brozek joined on loan from Trabzonspor until at least the end of season having already concluded deals for cover in midfield and defence in the Winter window.  Rabiu Ibrahim, a young Nigerian midfielder, has vowed to wow the fans with his flamboyant and skillful game which he models on a hybrid of Zinedine Zidane and David Silva, (a cross between the two would be just fine!) and the view from the manager and my Lennoxtown scout is the boy is something special. Denied any quality game time at PSV, Lennon has taken a worthwhile gamble on the twenty year-old who has received nothing bar glowing reports along the way – and the next few years at Celtic will hopefully be a productive one for player and club.

Rabiu Ibrhahim out to impress

Announced back in November, Mikael Lustig was the first player through the door arriving on a pre-contract from Rosenborg. There is still much debate surrounding this right-sided defender given the abundance of riches at the sides disposal in this department – Adam Matthews & Cha Du-Ri are already vying for the first team position, whilst the experienced Mark Wilson and young development player Andre Blackman also work towards a starting role. A fully fledged Swedish international in his prime playing years will not be arriving at Celtic Park for a place on the bench, however comfortable.

There were three heading the opposite direction with fringe youngsters, Paul Slane, James Keatings and Lewis Toshney going on loan to MK Dons, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock respectively for some valuable first team experience. The one disappointing story of the frantic final days proceedings, was that of Mark Wilson and the breakdown of his move to Leeds United. Disjointed & frustrating are words you would use to sum up the defenders spell at the Hoops since joining in 2006 – long-term injuries and rehabilitation being the route cause. And with additional back-up in Lustig his playing days with the Bhoys may now well be at an end. The opportunity of some game time in the Championship on the road back from his latest knee problem would have been essential if Wilson is to ever play competitive football for a sustained period.

Lustig in the Classic "Signed" Position

The main purpose of this window in my opinion, was for Celtic to maintain their current squad and especially their prized assets such as the striking combination of Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes.  As I mentioned last month in “When The Saints Come Marching In” – No good could emerge from Celtic letting their star striker leave at this point in the season, for any amount of money. Polish international striker, Brozek is waiting in the wings for an opportunity but again, how long will it take to get an understanding with another partner? Will he adapt to Scottish football in the short period he has to impress Lennon before he makes a decision on whether to make his stay permanent? Current squad members, who some may have not lost sleep over moving on to pastures new, such as Samaras and Ki – will prove their worth in the coming months also. Both players have individual styles of play with a lot of fans struggling to comprehend what they bring to the team. The Greek is direct and pacey, meaning the team can quickly switch to counter-attack or when struggling to break down a well parked SPL double decker. The Korean Player of the Year on the other hand, is able to command a game with the ball at his feet – his vision to pick a killer pass or dictate the play when under pressure could be vital.

Growing the side from a position of strength is something relatively new to Celtic, there is usually a diminution or two within the playing staff as has been seen in the last few windows. Rangers on the other hand, have adapted a polar opposite and not only let go of their most prized possession in Nikica Jelavic, but allowed another dozen or so players leave on loan or for good – if Celtic to fail to deliver the knockout punch in the coming months, it would have to go down as the most disappointing and unbelievable league campaigns of recent history. It is sport, human nature and one man versus another and of course, anything can happen – but to have such a dominating & dynamic young squad and positive mental edge, the forecast for green and white ribbons to be fluttering in May looks a sure thing.



Our talisman

We need to tell them quite rightly, where to go with their £6m bid for our top striker.

Southampton’s efforts to unsettle Gary Hooper have so far been rebuffed by both club & striker, with the latter committing at least, his short-term future to the club and possibly beyond. Not only is the Englishman this season’s top scorer, his partnership with Anthony Stokes seems to have matured into a solid mutual understanding and double act which has taken the League by storm with twenty-one goals so far. He is also ahead in their own personal goals head-to-head, which is great for motivation and can only add weight to Celtic’s longing for the Championship.

I do believe in the coming years, our number eighty-eight will move back to England, but at a higher level than where he came from at League One Scunthorpe United. Southampton, come May, could well be offering Hooperman Premier League football in England, albeit with a struggling side, but that would probably come under an aspiration for any footballer born down South and Hooper will be no different.  In his primitive few years in professional football, the Celtic star has accumulated over one hundred goals at only twenty-three and has shown not only a knack for being in the right place at the right time, but an ease and sublimity to his finishing.

Not only this, but how demoralising and disheartening would it be for the team, manager and fans to let their star man go, midway through the season – especially when their only other striking target, Baba Diawara, appears to have agreed terms with Spanish cracks, Sevilla. Trying to find another striker, or trying to incorporate the unconvincing Bangura into a partnership with Stokes for the title run in would be akin to shooting yourself in the foot – and the pain would be far worse if this decision meant finishing runners-up again.

" you come to mention it..."

One of the first occasions I set eyes on Mario, was during a highly-charged Champions League semi-final where the young eccentric number forty-five was having what appeared to be a touch-line rant at his own boss at the time, Jose Mourinho. Following Seville, many Celtic fans and neutrals have had an ongoing dislike for the egotistical Mourinho. He not only sent his Porto side out with barely a hint of sportsmanship that evening – but also, quite shockingly, neglected to acknowledge Martin O’Neills’ sides colossal effort in what turned out to be an enthralling struggle in the Spanish heat.

Therefore your sympathies at the outset, were with Balotelli. At first glance, even though you were totally enthralled at the theatre which was orchestrating itself out with the beautiful game on the pitch, there was a sense of worry as to why such an event had manifested itself during such a fixture? After a few minutes had passed it was revealed that the Italian youngster was asking the Portuguese boss for a substitution due to alleged racist chants directed at him from his own supporters wearing the black & blue from one half of Milan. A truly disgusting, but not unexpected act ,from supporters in Italy where unfortunately for a time this behaviour was accepted as the norm – Balotelli had only came on as a substitute twenty minutes from the whistle and ended the match by discarding his match shirt and throwing it to the ground in front of the vitriolic home crowd.

We fast forward twenty-months and to the Etihad stadium in last nights Carling Cup tie with Liverpool where the controversial star is returning after a knock which left him out of the equally polemically Manchester Derby on the 7th of January.

 “You can’t take your eyes off him”

Not a truer sentence has passesd from the lips of the much maligned, but mainly self-inflicted,pundit, Mark Lawrenson. From the team bus to the tunnel, pre-match warm up to the handshakes, to the pitch and the sometimes more encapsulating antics off it – Mario Balotelli is a character the type which has been missing from the spotlight of World Football for many years.  Last night was typical of his turbulent footballing career, City who were missing a few key men anyway, did not start the game or end it, in any sort of positive manner – the man in question could not control passes, at times stood statuesque and only broke a sweat chasing Charlie Adam after a foul and a clip on the ear from the ex-Ranger.  Thirty-five minutes into the game, he was replaced by Samir Nasri, gingerly leaving the field to muted and confused applause. Only a few days previously, social media was ablaze with Balotelli  trending following reports that on filling up his car with petrol, he held the pump overhead in jubilant exuberance and vowed to meet the costs of all other customers on the forecourt at that time.  Tales of this caliber are rarely given enough airtime within the media these days with the majority of stories focusing on the negative aspects of football, be it extra-marital affairs, drug & alcohol abuse or “illicit chanting” from supporters.

The Italian born forward seems to be singe-handily attempting to enhance the sports image, but with a fair share of his slightly idiotic actions he helps re-address the balance. That in itself is by the wayside, as a public figure he has entertained on & off the field so far this season and has helped catapult his side to the top of the Premiership – every headline that has centred around Balotelli this season has put a smile on my face whether it be football or firework related. Ian Crocker was against lambasted on Twitter during the week when the possibility of a Celtic Scottish Cup tie at Inverness arose following the few mentions he gave it during the defeat of Peterhead. For pundits, presenters and television companies, these upsets and “feel good” shocks are the lifeblood of keeping the neutral viewer South of the Border and further afield interested (we all know the rest of Scotland wants us to lose!), for the prosperity of ESPN, Sky Sports and Scottish football. So for “Super Mario” to be making such a name for himself after only just over a year in Britain, it keeps a healthy momentum of interest building around the beautiful game.

In the purest sense he probably isn’t the idea role model for children –  he is by far the worst and children from a technical aspect could not fail to be impressed with his skills – perhaps his temperament and work rate could be re-assessed in order to make a more rounded player, but I think trying to iron out his slight deficiencies would backfire on any respective manager looking to get a decent strike rate from the single-minded man. Not since the heyday of George Best, Paul Gascoigne or Frank Macavennie, has there been such spotlight and comment on one individual – the difference so far with Balotelli, is that he does not have the demons to go with it. Ill-mannered, stupid and sometimes irrational but his extroverted activities are for the most, comedic and done for no other reason than enjoyment and laughter – whilst his share in the City coffers have meant that his spare cash is not always frittered away, but often donated (see Petrol station scenario above) to others less fortunate than himself.  Driving around Manchester chucking notes out of his car window, giving a grand to a homeless man, and not to mention a couple of hundred to a local church – his good nature and love of life seems to shine through.

“The problem is because of his age, he can make some mistakes. He’s Mario. He’s crazy – but I love him because he’s a good guy.

They have not always seen eye to eye, but the words above of Roberto Mancini show that the Italian manager shows that the Italian manager has a real connection and belief in Balotelli’s abilities and maintains a fatherly outlook for the twenty-one year olds wellbeing. Mancini’s faith has been restored with a positive goal return of eleven so far this season, which is already one more than last term, and some startling performances to parachute the Blue side of Manchester into top spot. The return of the dark side to Carlos Tevez’s psyche has seen City’s three other star strikers given more of the limelight – which may in hindsight, have solved a possible selection headache for the manager. This positivity directed toward the Palermo-born star from the higher echelons is a far cry from his stint with Mourinho at the San Siro – a strained relationship which led to disciplinary problems and a public slaying by the Special One was not conducive to a productive player. If Balotelli can keep his focus on the pitch and enjoy his life in this country, I am certain he can fire his side to the Premiership title come May.