Hopelessly Devoted To Celtic: Part 3
After landing back in Glasgow from the Helsinki game, I stole three hours of sleep before heading back to Glasgow Airport for my trans-Atlantic flight to Philadelphia via New York for the Celtic v Real Madrid friendly. At the airport, I ran into some of the Celtic players heading over to Philly as well. I felt for them.
I had just watched 90 minutes of football with little sleep and I was knackered – how were they feeling after playing 90 minutes with little sleep?
As always, it’s a tough gig to say goodbye to Glasgow and my Scottish family. Especially after the events of the night before in Helsinki, on little sleep and running on adrenaline alone, my emotions were all over the place when I said cheerio at the drop off point. Instead of breaking down, I did the macho Australian male thing and sucked it up until I got to the toilets in the airport lounge where I preceded to bawl my eyes out for the next fifteen minutes in a cubicle before composing myself.
To rescue myself from a blubbering mess, I paid one last visit to the Celtic Shop at the airport and bought the new away strip and maybe another polo shirt or two.
Philadelphia greeted me with sunny 35 degree heat. After a week in Glasgow I had completely forgotten that the northern hemisphere was in summer. On the Friday afternoon I wandered the streets of Philadelphia trying to channel my inner Springsteen, but failed miserably. So I grabbed a bite to eat in a Cuban bar in which I met a middle aged couple, Jim and Marry-Anne who were in from Pittsburgh for the game.
I assumed that they were life long Celtic supporters and had family back in either Scotland or Ireland. How wrong I was. Jim was a lifelong Steelers fan and never really followed ‘soccer’. He only started watching it three years ago because he wanted to follow a sport in the NFL off-season. So he chose to follow Celtic because his background is Irish.
He explained to me that he only really appreciated how significant the rivalry with Rangers was after he was abused by a Hun at a college football match. It’s a shame they’re no longer around, they were such a great recruitment tool for our club. He asked what was the deal with Rangers and the colour orange? To which I rolled my eyes and replied, do you want their version or the truthful version?
I ran into Jim later that night at the Charlie and the Bhoys concert at the Plough and Stars pub, where he and his wife were clearly mad wae it! God bless them.
At the pub, I managed to meet Graham Wilson and all the bhoys from the Beyond the Waves Celtic podcast and Seamus from the Over and Over Celtic podcast. Last season, I got to know these guys on twitter, so to finally meet up with them was a brilliant experience.
To be fair, Graham and his wife could have been serial killers, but thankfully every member of the Celtic family on twitter that I met over the weekend were decent people and fine representatives of the Celtic community. Who said twitter wasn’t bringing the world closer?
The Charlie and the Bhoys concert was what it was. It’s great to hear the rebs belted out, and I was impressed given the high ratio of North Americans in the crowd that they knew every word to every song. But without sounding too controversial – Charlie needs to lift his game. The dwindling number of traditional Irish instruments in the band’s ensemble makes the songs sound like children’s songs, not rebel songs. Not that it mattered, you could have played a CD and it still would have been a party that night.
At one point, a blue coffin with the inscription RIP Rangers made an appearance to the tune, Havin a party when Rangers die. If this was a wake, it was the best one I’ve been to yet. If only the Huns could die every week.
The next morning I met up with Graham and the bhoys at another Philly Irish bar – Fadó – before we headed to the game. Graham gave half the bar a fright when he called out to his wife in an abbreviated version of honey, his gentle term of affection to his wife – hey Hun! To which most in the bar stopped talking and turned to look for some prick in a blue shirt.
Real Madrid v Celtic, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA
Arriving at Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the NFL team the Philadelphia Eagles, I was totally impressed with the sporting facilities. They have built a sports park that caters for its city’s sports crazy fans. Next to the 68,000 seat football stadium is Citizens Bank Park, home to the MLB team, the Philadelphia Phillies and across the road is the Wells Fargo Centre which houses the local NBA and NHL teams.
In the car park, several Real Madrid fans were partaking in the great American tradition of tailgating, but with a Latin flavour. Towards the back end of the car park, where all the Celtic support congregated, they were partaking in a Glasgow tradition of publically being pished off their faces and having a great time.
Wedged in between four or five buses that brought the bhoys down from the various New York supporters clubs were hundreds of Tims drinking and singing in the sun. It was a Celtic festival right in the heart of South Philly.
In the short space of time, I met so many Celtic supporters from different walks of life. Like the bhoys from the Mets Bhoys podcast or Br. Bryce – a Marist Brother who was only here for the party. What struck me was the deep level of support the club has in the North American community.
I’ve watch Celtic in most Australia capital cities at various supporters clubs and even today, the most dominant accent amongst the support is Scottish, not Australian. Standing in that car park and then in the stadium, sure I heard plenty of Glaswegian, Belfast and Kerry accents, but so many guys were either American or Canadian. And not just blow-in supporters like you get with most top clubs in the EPL or the Spanish league, these guys were hard core Celtic supporters.
And not just of Irish heritage either, I met Celtic men and women of African-American, Indian, Latino and Asian backgrounds – reaffirming that this team has and will always be a club open to all. Being part of this wonderful occasion reinforced my belief that this club is like no other. It is more than a football club; it’s a global sporting and cultural phenomenon.
Inside the stadium, the bottom deck was packed, mostly with Real Madrid fans… I stand corrected… Cristiano Ronaldo fans. The Latino community of central and South America had come to see one of the most gifted, selfish, cheating players on the planet and were most likely oblivious to the fascist football team he was playing for.
The Portuguese striker demonstrate to all how much of a wanker he is by walking off the pitch throwing his jersey into the crowd whilst a fellow professional – young Celt Dylan McGeoch – lay prone and unconscious on the ground after suffering a heavy knock.
The 15,000 strong Celtic support were packed in behind the goal. Given most of the Madrid ‘fans’ sat on their hands for most of the game, it was left to the sea of green and white to provide the atmosphere to this friendly tie. The game itself was rubbish, as most friendlies are, but it was clear most Celtic fans were there simply to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy watching the team in a stadium that sold beer.
At one point the very fastidious stadium attendant cautioned a wee Glaswegian man for swearing. He was politely told to GTF.
After the game we made our way back to Fadó for some pints and more sing songs. I had the privilege of being a guest on the Beyond the Waves podcast with Graham and the influential internet blogger Phil Mac Giollabhain – who spent most of his time checking his twitter account.
I met a travelling troika of supporters who were out from Glasgow for the game. They are the modern Celtic family. It consisted of a very serious, bald guy from Ayr who can recount the days on the Jungle. He’s struggled with the board’s lack of ambition as much as he did with the Pennsylvanian heat. His partner, a well spoken English woman – whom you would mistakenly think was here for the shopping, was a committed Tim. Together with her young daughter who put me under the kosh with her Spansh inquisition over the course of the evening, she never misses a game.
We sat there, like a stereotypical lead in to a pathetic joke… an Englishwoman, a Scotswoman, an Australian and a really cynical Tim from Ayrshire. We were a motley crew but we all shared one common denominator, our blind love and dedication for this football team.
Later on that night I hit the dance floor and acquainted myself with a young woman, down from New York. Things were going well until she informed me she was a season ticket holder of the New York Yankees. At which point I felt the need to show her my Red Sox Nation membership. She was none too pleased with my choice of baseball team and our romance kind of died on the dance floor.
The next morning I awoke on top of the covers of my hotel bed. I was still fully clothed in my hoops with a throbbing headache. But I wasn’t alone. Next to me, I hugged an unopened bag of McDonalds take away. The cheeseburger was cold but it provided some solace from the hangover.
That day, I wandered aimlessly around Philly, coming to terms with the reality that my journey of relentless effort was coming to an end. I was crashing, coming down from the biggest sporting high.
Over the space of six crazy weeks, I had lived a privileged life. I crossed the Atlantic twice. I stood on the bleachers of historic Fenway Park to watch my Red Sox in five great games. I ventured into the Bronx, deep inside enemy territory to see the Sox steal two rare wins against the Yanks. I chased Celtic across three countries over two continents. I had met some wonderful people and shared some unforgettable experiences.
These are the moments I cherish. Whether it’s with 85,000 fans in Seville or 600 in Helsinki, the experience is the same. This team has taken me to places I’d never imagined, and for that alone, I’m relentlessly grateful.