Hopelessly Devoted to Celtic: Part 2
My alarm went off at three in the morning. I had only had two solid hours of sleep. By this stage of the trip, I had lived in four different time zones, I was about to fly into my fifth time zone and at no stage had I gone to bed before 1am over the four week period. My body clock had given up on any concept of day and night, sleep and rest weeks before, now it just pitied me. This is the modern pentathlon.
As I crawled out of bed I remember thinking to myself: “I can’t believe I’m doing this again”. Back in December 2007, my two cousins and I travelled to Milan for the day to see the Celtic take on AC Milan in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League at the San Siro.
I vividly remember getting up early for that trip to Milan five years ago. It was a long, cold day. The morning and afternoon consisted of singing and drinking in the Piazza del Duomo, then standing in the heavens of the San Siro in Arctic conditions for an hour before the game, watching the team lose and then having to hang around for another hour after the game freezing our proverbials off, before arriving back in Glasgow, completely drained.
At the time, I remarked to my cousin Seán: “I’m never doing this again”. I do recall my famous last words were: “next time, we are so doing a three day trip”.
I didn’t learn. Here I was again, doing the day trip, getting up at 3am for a 5am chartered flight, bound for another continental destination to see my football team potentially add to its appalling away record in Europe.
I don’t mean to complain, after all, I didn’t have to go. But yeah sure, like I’m going to fly all the way to Scotland via the US and then not go another three hours to Finland to see a team we would all walk a million miles for. Yes on paper it appears I had a choice, but in reality, when it comes to matters of Celtic, I’ve never had a choice, you’re born that way.
Supporting Celtic is not a decision, it just happens. One minute you’re a seven year old wearing your older brother’s tattered Celtic top playing football in the park across the street, the next you’re standing in the Stadio Olympico in Seville with that same brother watching the Bhoys in a European final.
So getting up at an un-godly hour to watch Celtic, was a no brainer – for most Australian based supporters, this is the only way we see the team.
The support that travelled on the flight from Glasgow to the Finnish capital were a mix of retired pensioners, out to enjoy the day trip, fathers and sons, tradies taking the day off, young blokes who clearly go to every match home or away and the odd bampot.
One particular guy, a respectable looking businessman in his early 50’s was clearly nervous about flying, going by the large handful of pills he scoffed just before take off. Or maybe, it was to deal with Celtic’s paltry 2 wins from the last 37 games on the road. Either way, from now on, he was known to us as ‘Pills’.
On the flight over, my cousin and I made a pact. On this European trip, we would approach the day differently. On previous trips, we had essentially gone to the nearest off-licence, bought a case of beer, headed to the town square, wrote ourselves off, usually in front of some of Europe’s most famous cathedrals and then watched Celtic lose.
This time, we would do the opposite. This time we would not drink… as much, get cultured and visit the historical monuments and take the time to ingratiate ourselves with the locals and their customs. My cousin even went as far as to ditch the hoops for the first time and opted for the new black away strip – controversial.
We arrived in Helsinki and got dropped off at the stadium and caught a tram into the city. Just like the trams in Melbourne, these ones were for free too! We passed a statue with three nude men standing around an anvil with hammers in their hands and their dudes exposed. I sincerely hoped that occupational health and safety standards had lifted for workers in this country since this statue was first erected.
As we wandered down by the marina, first impressions of Helsinki were that it’s very clean and very green, and everyone is strikingly attractive. Even their pets had a master race look about them.
We visited the church on a hill, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, a great example of neo-classical design (I didn’t know that at the time, I just googled it then). My cousin asked me what denomination it was, I replied, “Nordic-Hun, I think.”
We paid our respects in a moment of ecumenical silence. I prayed to Luther and asked if he could guide Celtic to a victory tonight, then all would be forgotten for behaving like a prick in the 1500’s.
Though significantly further north, but away from the rain belt that hugs the west of Scotland, Helsinki turned on a stunning day. We sat at a high street cafe, sipping aperitifs, tanning ourselves, admiring the view, and being in a general state of what some would call – up ourselves.
In the late afternoon, we made our way to Molly Malones, where we reacquainted ourselves with the supporters on the flight over, including Pills, who was on more than pills by now. What once seemed like a mild mannered businessman had now found his inner Fenian thanks to several pints of stout and was now as they say, mad wae it.
On the small stage in the corner of the bar, five ex-pats provided some mood music by way of a traditional session. Every now and then, some of the more musically gifted Tims in the crowd got up and grabbed a guitar and cranked out the rebel tunes. By the time we walked out of the pub and made our way back to the stadium on Helsinki’s free public transport, we were in full voice.
Helsinki v Celtic
UEFA Champions League 3rd Round 2nd Leg
Sonera Stadium, Helsinki, Finland
The 10,000 seater Sonera Stadium lay in the shadow of the old Olympic stadium. It looked like South Melbourne Hellas’ ground, but with really attractive people in it. For this second leg, the locals had turned out to provide a full house as Celtic sought to defend a slender 2-1 lead. The 600 travelling Celtic support stood in the north east corner of the stadium, out singing the other 9,400 Fins.
The teams appeared from the tunnel, Helsinki in their blue and white verticle stripes and Celtic in their latest black away top. Due to the terrible winters, Helsinki played there football on a synthetic surface. Surprisingly, this plastic pitch played worse than Fir Park today (for Australian readers – the Western Oval in the 80s). How can carpet be so bumpy? Perhaps they forgot to vacuum it.
The first half was nervy and Celtic struggled to contain the Helsinki attacks with their pacey wingers. The only highlight was me and Seán getting our ugly mugs on the telly.
Half time came and as it stood, Celtic would go through to the next round if they could break the record books by keeping a clean sheet. In the men’s toilets another record was being broken for how many guys can fit in the one pisser.
In the second half Celtic were kicking toward the Celtic end. After weathering the initial storm from the Fins, Celtic struck against the run of play when a Charlie Mulgrew cross was met by an unmarked Joe Ledley at the back post to calmly chest it over the line.
At which point I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do at a Celtic match – run down the aisle towards the goal scorer and act like a complete fanny for the television cameras.
I got down to the barrier and was joined by Seán and even Pills made the trip to tell Joe how much we love him. Any neutral observer of the game would have been watching and saying – just look at these morons.
But I didn’t care, we were 1-0 up on the night and 3-1 on aggregate and a rare away win was now firmly on the cards.
Five minutes from time, the greatest Greek ever to play for Celtic – indeed the only Greek ever to play for Celtic – sealed the tie with a deft goal past the keepers outside post. At which point I looked at my cousin and simply pointed towards the barrier to which we both once again, made a b-line. Pills joined in the celebration, this time he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Then from nowhere broke out a chant amongst the support to the tune of the old Christian hymn, This is the Day that the Lord has made – but amended to This is the day that we won away. Only a Celtic support could turn a hymn into a football song.
After the thirty fifth rendition of This Is The Day, then followed my first stadium huddle. Sure I’ve done it in the street, at the pub with the Jock Stein Bhoys back home, solo huddle in the shower, but I was dying to do the huddle in a stadium. I’m sure it didn’t look as impressive as a huddle at Celtic Park, but it felt just as good.
For the first 80 minutes of this match we had sung our lungs out. But now with a three goal cushion we found extra voices and really let the locals know who they were playing.
The travelling Celtic support, in my mind, is the best support in world football. That is a FACT. They have travelled more miles, over more continents and in greater numbers than any other team. And don’t forget that most of these guys are just working class people. The financial burden is significant, particularly with the financial climate in Scotland just now.
A Union flag appeared amongst the home support as to agitate us. Nobody noticed, and if they did, they didn’t care. The whistle blew for full time and we had to wait for half an hour, but unlike Milan, we were happy to stay and soak it up.
To a chorus of I Just Can’t Get Enough, we walked out the stadium at 10:30 at night with a northern sunset on our backs. I was pleased to have witnessed my first Celtic win on the road.
An hour later we were back on the plane, more singing, another Huddle and arrived in Glasgow Airport at 1am. The players landed at the same time. In less than five hours they would be back here on a flight to Philadelphia, USA and so would I.