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Authors: Martin Greig

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BOOK: The Road to Lisbon
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When the boy became a man . . . that was when the first steps were taken on the road to Lisbon.

And now . . . now I tell my players, “You’re here to entertain. You’re here to make people’s lives better. People who work hard all week. People who work
down the mines, in factories and in the yards. People who barely glimpse daylight during the week, who come along and spend their hard-earned money to watch you play. You have the ability to raise
their spirits, to give their life meaning. You can be lights in the darkness.”

The darkness. The blackness.

Burnbank. Protestant Burnbank. Protestant Burnbank with its corner of Catholics. Divided communities. ‘Don’t stray into the wrong street . . .
don’t look at them.’

‘Them.’
Them and us.
Protestant and Catholic. I remember the Cross. Burnbank Cross. The centre of our community. The pubs, the chatter. I remember July 12th. The
noise, the colours, the pageantry and the sense of belonging, of community. But I remember something else. An edge, a sneer at the end of sentences. A flash of the eyes.
Them and us.
I
remember the no-go zones. ‘Pope’s corner’ we called one of them, where the Catholics met. Them at Pope’s Corner. Us at Burnbank Cross.
Them and us.
Protestant
Burnbank. Catholic Bellshill. Protestant Larkhall. Catholic Blantyre. Divided communities. Worlds apart.

‘Keep your distance,’ they said, so I did, unquestioningly at first. But things change. Lives change, and you meet people. I met Jean one summer’s evening in
Cambuslang. Jean Toner McAuley. The woman who would become the love of my life. A Catholic.

I knew what it meant. From the first moment, I knew the consequences. It meant slinking down back streets on our way home because it was not a good idea to walk down the main
street. It meant steering away from the Cross. From the pubs, the chatter. It meant whispers and disapproving, disappointed glances.
Turncoat. Jump-the-dyke
.

It meant rejection. But rejection by who? People who choose to hate you because of your religion? Fuck them. Fuck them all.

It also meant something more powerful, more meaningful. Not hatred, but love. Not them and us. Just us. Myself and Jean.

Football, my other love, was always there, a constant. Blantyre Victoria then Albion Rovers. Cliftonhill was where I made my name as a centre-half. Where I
started to think about football, really think about it. Where I would question everything, study the opposition, find out their strengths and weaknesses, learn to compensate for my own weaknesses.
And I had no shortage of those. With my left foot, I had a kick like a mule. My right was only of use for standing on. I developed a neat trick of using my right knee rather than my foot to clear
the ball, but even that was capable of letting me down. ‘Yer a one-footed mug,’ would sound from the terraces at Cliftonhill, usually when we were getting beaten. But I had my ways of
ushering nippy centre-forwards down blind alleys, of encouraging them to turn the way I wanted them to. It was all thought out, analysed, planned in the most minute detail. It did not make me a
world-beater, but it did allow me to cope, even to flourish on occasion.

I looked around me and everywhere saw more naturally gifted players. Players who were born to play football, who knew the game instinctively. Players with the ability to do things
out of the ordinary, but who could never quite explain how or why they did it after the event. That fascinated me. I wanted to get inside their heads. I wondered how good players could become even
better and how great players could become world-beaters . . . how their natural instincts could be honed to make them an even more potent force. I thought a lot. About football, about tactics,
about what motivates different people and about what undermines their confidence. God knows I had plenty of time to reflect on such matters.

Bothwell Pit, Monday to Friday. Cliftonhill or an away fixture on a Saturday. A week spent in the darkness, but a week spent thinking and planning, picking the team in my head. I
was not the manager but it became clear that a well-timed word in his ear from me would sway his judgement. He knew that I knew more than he knew. He was right. Soaking everything in like a sponge.
Directing play from the centre of defence. And the players looking to me for leadership. The manager looking to me for leadership. A leader of men. It came instinctively and it surprised me at
first. It was the first realisation that I could do something different, but I did not know what it meant, what it could lead to.

Albion Rovers v Rangers was the highlight of the season. Cliftonhill bursting at the seams. The blue strip carried an aura. Most of us were Rangers men but we were all footballers,
too. I saw no conflict between the two. I looked at my team-mates and I sensed a level of respect that went too far. I did not like it. I was my own man. A professional. I ploughed into 50-50s with
relish, took no prisoners. They didn’t like it, the Rangers players. They looked at me as if an unwritten rule had been broken. I just shrugged my shoulders and tackled even harder. Fuck
them. It was not about loyalties. It was not about religion. It was about football. Always football.

~~~

The wireless is murmuring something about Muhammad Ali refusing the draft. Other than that there is only the sound of crockery gently clanking and splashing in the sink. She
doesn’t hear me come in. I watch her for a while in her tired, solitary routine, surrounded by sad brands, mocked by the faux cheerfulness of cheap detergent labels. I watch her muscular arms
as she washes the lunch dishes and some of my painting things, absorbed in thought. Her movements are sluggish and resigned.

“Hi Ma.”

I kiss her.

“Hello son. How are you?”

“Fine. Yourself?”

“Not bad, not bad.”

She sighs.

“What’s up Ma?”

“Nothing son.”

“Where’s my da?”

“In bed.”

“Is he asleep?”

“No. Just a wee bit tired. Go through and see him.”

The room is shaded. Christ crucified looms above the headboard. My father’s odour fills my nostrils. He stirs, aware of me. I speak into the cool silence.

“Why are you in bed Da, are you tired?”

“Naw son. Just a bit cold is all.”

“I’ll put a fire on.”

“It’s alright. There’s no coal anyway.”

“That’s no good Da, staying in bed ’cause you’re cold.”

I want him to complain. I want him to tell me how to make it better.

“Are you going then?”

“Aye. Leaving soon.”

“That’s grand, son.”

I feel bad leaving him.

“Will you see it?”

“Aye. Your Uncle Joe’s bringing round a telly. Might even have a wee dram!”

“That’s great. Think we’ll win?”

“I know we will. The good Lord didn’t bring us this far to lose. Believe me son, Celtic’s special. Anointed.”

The doubt is written on my face.

“Have faith.”

Suddenly he begins coughing violently, bent over, hacking phlegm from his lungs. I rub his back.

“Pass me that linctus son.”

He takes a sip and the coughing abates. His chest heaves; a discordant harmony rises and falls with every breath. He relates a familiar story, as though he has to explain or apologise for the
way his health is.

“Those fibres, it was lying around everywhere in the yard during the second war. We used it for fireproofing on the battleships. We even had a snowball fight with it once. It seemed so
harmless, like kids’ stuff. Then this new gaffer told us he reckoned it was dangerous, that it gets into your lungs. So after that we didn’t touch it unless we had to. I forgot all
about it, then years later, when I started getting breathless, an old workmate of mine made the connection. He had it too.”

Da and Ma – they’ve done so much for us, never complaining. Sometimes I dread having a family. I’d be so worried that I couldn’t hack the graft, on account of the fact
that I find it so depressing and boring. Plus I hate the way it fucks up your health. I mean, just look at Da.

“Now, go into my top drawer for me . . . take out that envelope.”

“What’s this?”

“A wee minding. From me and your mammy.”

“I can’t take this; you with no enough for coal!”

He tuts impatiently in his particular way, then speaks with mock sternness.

“There’s no question of us no having enough for coal! Now take it. Enjoy yourself. And make sure you thank your mammy.”

I walk towards him. Grasp his thin, leathery hand. Touch his soft white hair. Kiss his forehead. That wee shrapnel scar, so familiar to me, so emblematic of him. Close my eyes and hold the
moment. Remember it. Treasure it. Want to keep him forever.

“Good lad.”

He closes his eyes. I go to leave. Then turn back.

“Da. One question. Favourite-ever Celtic match?”

He instantly comes back to life in a series of grunts and gasps.

“Help me sit up . . . put the wee table light on . . . now, take the bottle out o’ the dresser . . . naw, the next door . . . that’s it.”

He pours us both a whisky, mine in the wee crystal glass, his in his medicine cup. The meagre light illuminates his grey, haggard face. I try not to look upset. At least those hazel Donegal eyes
are still sparkling. We raise our drams and drink, me pretending that the spirit doesn’t burn, trying not to choke, trying not to spoil this precious moment of togetherness.

“September 10th 1938. Celtic 6 Rangers 2. I was there, in the Jungle. Celtic scorers: McDonald hat-trick, Lyon double, Delaney. Malky McDonald was magnificent that day, he was a player,
son, believe me.”

The room now is a hotchpotch of 40 years of marriage. Relics of five children and umpteen grandchildren, odd books and ornaments, things misplaced and mixed up during half-a-dozen flittings.

He is wistful now, almost whispering.

“But then there was Jimmy Delaney – he was a class apart. Watching a wee winger in a green-and-white hooped jersey take the baw past a big ugly defender – it’s a
beautiful thing to watch. It’s Celtic. It’s . . . romance!”

My eyes wander along the ever-growing line of medicines on his bedside table. None of them seem to
work
. I feel a wave of anger, then a sensation of helplessness and sorrow. My eyes film
with water. Luckily he’s not noticing; he’s too focused on his story. I blink and pretend to have been listening.

“Anyway, it all started when McDonald smashed the baw in on the rebound. The half-backs, Geatons, Paterson and Lyon, were out of this world. The Huns couldn’t live with them. We were
three-nil up by half-time – played them off the bloody park! Then the Huns came back at us; before we knew it the score was 3-2, it was a bloody travesty! You should have heard their dirty
mob chanting, they thought they had us on the ropes. But we just kept on singing and then Jimmy nets the fourth and we know it’s all over. McDonald got the last two, superb goals they were.
What a day. We sang
Hail Glorious Saint Patrick
all the way down the Gallowgate, all the way through the town and all the way to the Gorbals!”

~~~

Every life has its moments. Moments that are burned in the memory forever, that change the direction of your life. My moment came as I was sitting in my chair
in a small house in a small village in a Welsh valley, reflecting on how my ambitions as a full-time professional had apparently seeped away.

Six months earlier I had ended my eight-year spell at Albion Rovers to sign for Llanelli, a forward-thinking club with intentions of entering the English football league. The club
had trebled my £4 wage. I was 27, a full-time professional for the first time in my life and could not have been happier. No more mining. Just football.

But then things started to go wrong. The whispers of financial mismanagement at the club reached full cry. Then the wages stopped. Then the worries started. Jean was back in
Scotland. The house had been broken into twice. I wanted to be with her. But with a return to Scotland came a return to mining. A return to the darkness. The blackness.

Then came the call that changed my life.

“Jock, it’s Jimmy Gribben here, from Celtic Football Club. I hear you are looking for a move back to Scotland. You fancy signing for us?”

With the phone still glued to my ear, I began to laugh, waves of mirth washing over me.

“You can’t be serious Jimmy,” I said, after finally composing myself.

But Jimmy was serious.

“Jock, we want you to sign for Celtic. Have a think about it, speak to the family and call me back.”

The phone went dead. Decision time. I stood there. In a small house, in Mansell Street, Llanelli, a tiny village in the Valleys. No steady income. No family beside me. No prospects.
Until now. But this was no ordinary prospect. A Rangers man signing for Celtic?
Turncoat, Turncoat. Traitor, Traitor.
I thought of the friends I would lose. The family members who would shun
me. I thought of the men at Burnbank Cross. I thought of it all. Fuck them. Fuck them all. Then I picked up the phone.

“Jimmy, you have a deal.”

~~~

Mark and I have arranged to meet Eddie outside the cash and carry. He is waiting, leaning against a lamp-post, smoking. He grins at us through a spider-web of scars, his bogey
piled high with booze. He takes a slug from a tin of lager; he’s already getting torn in.

“Alright Tim?”

“Alright Eddie.”

“Alright Olive?”

“A-a-alright Eddie.”

We head to where the Imp is. We are struggling to fit all the booze into the car when Rocky finally turns up, looking effortlessly like a movie star, an entourage of his numerous younger
brothers in his wake, each a smaller and slightly different version of himself. Wraparound shades, suede shoes, five o’clock shadow on his hollow cheeks, crisp open-necked white shirt beneath
his chocolate-brown
Tailorfit
suit.

“I’ve no got the seat, by the way,” he says.

“What?”

“Got let down. No my fault.”

“Well what the fuck are we gonnae sit on for Christ’s sake?”

BOOK: The Road to Lisbon
5.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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