Kevin Graham with A Celtic State of Mind – The Places I Remember

“There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain…”

In My Life – The Beatles

Like most obsessives, football was introduced to me at an early age. The buzz of cup finals and home nations on TV and the celebrations of a returning home father after games. Then there were the stories, the legends, and the myths that were told time and time again.

To make all this true to an impressionable mind requires a belief that we can achieve all that we are told and see. To attain that level of enlightenment requires attendance at games and an attachment to certain churches of football worship. Your surroundings and feeling of belonging ignite an internal flame just as much as what happens on the pitch and sometimes it is more important than what is happening on the pitch. For me, Celtic Park and Annfield were those altars. Both represent different entries to the wonderful world of football.

“From the graveyard to paradise.
From the moment people started working for the cause to build the dream,
You have always stood for Celtic and you have always stood for me.”

Extract from: ‘Standing Up For Celtic’ by Kevin Graham

I was a preordained Celtic fan. Family background dictated that which is treated with scornful snobbery by some. If I was going to get bitten by the clegg of football then there was only one place it was going to be.

The first Celtic game I remember attending was in 1981 at Cappielow. I can recall the blue of the main stand and perimeters but nothing of the game. There is also a trip to Pittodrie where I was fed sweets by a sympathetic policeman who must have wondered what on earth a five-year-old’s parents were thinking, allowing him to attend the most boozy of away games.

But it was Celtic Park where the memories are lucid. Travelling with the local Celtic supporters club who became an extended family. Like all families, there were things that were puzzling when you were introduced to them and members who you are only glad to meet once in a while.

The blurring of politics, civil rights and terrorism was a cocktail of confusion for a young mind who was only interested in going to see football. I felt comfortable amongst them, though. I was one of the first generation of Celtic fans post-Lisbon, which saw the Celtic support become more inclusive and one that didn’t require or expect to follow the previous Irish Scots diaspora choices in life.

Living in a small village, this made me feel somewhat of an outsider. I struggled to understand the mindset of those who said I wasn’t allowed to support Celtic and attend my school.

Going to matches saw me accepted by others who also saw themselves as outsiders. Though I had misgivings and still do of what some believed was the ingredients of a Celtic fan, that first couple of trips saw a lifetime obsession and sense of belonging.

That coach introduced me to a brand new world and took me to my Paradise. We used to park behind the east terracing in front of the old Irn Bru factory. The east terracing was an imposing sight over-shadowing the orange-bricked wall that housed the turnstiles, and also the tenements that looked onto it.

Past the east terracing, down Janefield Street was a small corridor where the turnstiles to the legendary ‘Jungle’ ran parallel with the sandstone wall of the graveyard. There was a right of passage to be able to walk down that corridor and take your place in that enclosure. It was a journey that I would take later.

But initially, I was lifted over the turnstiles, running up those east terracing stairs, turning around at the top and looking back over the flow of the crowd in awe. That thought still gives me goosebumps.

When you walked onto the terracing you were exposed to a vast bowl. The Main Stand was a colourful orange in contrast to the surrounding grey and greens. The ash track gave the pitch a red halo and distance. It was a natural stage – one that only the players were allowed to enter and us mere mortals had to make do with watching.

My love of football was formed here. In the early years, the dominance of the New Firm was in full effect. This would see players from Dundee United and Aberdeen quite regularly hop over the advertising boards, run past the light blue disabled cars in celebration towards their joyous band of supporters.

Though, disappointed in defeat that I was, seeing players who were more than holding their own in Europe was mind-blowing. I was also watching Tommy Burns, Davie Provan, Brian McClair, Paul McStay and Danny McGrain. What young mind isn’t going to be impressed?

Celtic was a full-blown love affair by the time we won our centenary double. Games and results were now worming into my brain as milestones. I progressed to the ‘Jungle’ in the nineties and my first game was a UEFA Cup tie against Cologne. We were two nil down from the first leg but turned it around and won three nil. I danced like it was an
Italian wedding.

By this time the ground had seemed to have fallen into disrepair, though thinking back, there was always a feeling of disrepair. The Taylor Report recommendations were looming large on the horizon and were a noose around the board’s neck.

Things needed to change. Strangely enough, the other ground that shaped my football view was, at the same time, also shaking hands on a deal that would see it lost to existence.

“The number 38 delivers me to counter culture

As I stand close to the back, watching
the punks, the rockers, mods, skins, would-be Morrisseys, all sing
Buddy Holly songs

With a man and a guitar”

Extract from: ‘The number 38 to Annfield’ by Kevin Graham

Stirling Albion was formed in 1945 from the ashes of Kings Park FC, who were literally flattened by the Luftwaffe. A new club was the idea of Thomas Fergusson, who purchased the Annfield Estate and built the ground. The ground was only a quarter of a mile from the town centre and on the main bus route. For an impressionable mind, being able to see a football ground on a weekly basis fired the imagination.

Not that there was much grandeur about what you could see from the road. As you passed Victorian mansions, partially hidden by large oak trees, you were confronted by a badly whitewashed wall, flaking red paint turnstile frames and a glimpse of a mossy grey bitumen corrugated roof that looked as if any attempt to stand on it would see you slip to certain death.

Inside the ground, there wasn’t much improvement. When I first went to Annfield, the Main Stand was still standing but was condemned. I once managed to get inside and, disappointingly, it didn’t contain the riches of the Ark of the Covenant but only some ripped seats, stacked tables and a tea urn. It was a glorified garage but more romantic. The terracing perimeter was cone-shaped concrete bollards, again badly painted white joined together by rusting red poles and was exactly the same as the pictures I had seen in Celtic history books. The ground hadn’t changed from those pictures taken in the sixties and early-seventies.

There was another stand opposite where, for an extra fifty pence, you could sit on a padded seat that had been ‘upcycled’ from the local cinema. The terracings were crumbling with more weeds than most gardens. The north end was nicknamed The Kop only because it was covered.

The club was in financial trouble and Stirling Council purchased the ground in the early eighties. By 1987, the pitch had been dug up and replaced by Scotland’s first ever Astroturf pitch to justify the Council’s investment. The concrete-coned perimeter replaced by shining white block metal rectangles, the seats in the stand were now plastic and the main stand demolished.

The first game played on Astroturf was against Ayr United. I was there like I was most weeks when I wasn’t allowed to go to the Celtic games. Only I wasn’t there to rubberneck at how the game would be changed by the surface. I was there to do what I did at Annfield: observe, learn and explore what being a football fan was about. Going to Celtic Park didn’t give me much freedom. There wasn’t much chance of encountering away fans, wandering around the ground or learning the different aesthetics of ordinary people and what football meant to them.

I was allowed to go to Annfield on my own. It was only one bus and the bus stopped just along from the ground. I wasn’t restricted to what I could do. I could stand where I wanted. Pay the extra fifty pence to sit in the stand if I wanted and I could also mix with the visiting fans.

Stirling had a small band of punks, mods, rockers, Smiths fans and skinheads that would stand up the back of The Kop. They were joined by a man with a guitar that would play Rave On by Buddy Holly and songs by The Beatles. Were they interested in the football? I couldn’t tell you, I just wondered why one of them had a leather jacket with Crass tippexed across the back and who Paul Weller was.

I was able to stand on the same terracing as the visiting fans listening to their colloquialisms and blinkered views. To this day my broad-brush opinion is rightly or wrongly based on those experiences.

You would also learn about changing fashions when you were visited by a club from a bigger town. The rise of the football casual was a big story in the eighties and I had not seen anything of this culture at Celtic Park. It was different at Annfield, where most visiting teams had a few, or more than a few, who were part or wanting to be part of this culture. The clothes and trainers were always better. Stirling was a late adopter of most cultures and casual was no different.

As rave took hold, the bullies that were bored and frequented the shopping centre decided that attending football matches was the natural progression from threatening kids outside Boots.

There was fun to be had watching, from a safe distance, the bullies getting taught lessons from the more experienced lads from Dundee and other such places. Their presence at the ground wasn’t a long one.

The move from Annfield came after Stirling Council decided to sell the land and build an all-purpose leisure facility of which the new stadium, Forthbank, would be the jewel. In April 1993 Stirling Albion played Clydebank at the new stadium. I was there but things had changed.

While it was true that Forthbank, with its breezeblock out-of-town retail park vibe, lacks the character and soul of the old ground, that wasn’t the reason things didn’t feel the same.

Annfield had served its purpose. I had never developed an emotional attachment to what was happening on the pitch. My investment was in learning about football culture and my emotional investment in football was clearly at Celtic Park.

I was now old enough to attend any Celtic game and the emotional pull was much greater than the need for social observation. If you’re fully paid up emotionally there isn’t much room for anything else like supporting another team.

Celtic Park changed in the subsequent years and for the better. The old ground will always have a place in my heart but the reality was that it was a terrible place to watch football with poor sight-lines, and was crumbling around us due to lack of investment.

All of that is forgotten about when viewed through the prism of nostalgia. What we now have is a football stadium, where I have enjoyed some great days and nights and I wouldn’t change it for the world. There is no regret for the change that happened.

Football fans are quick to blame the falling out of love with the game on the commercialisation and modernisation that has happened. That’s an easy excuse and the question they should be asking themselves is what they want out of football? Sometimes your needs change and that’s not football’s fault.

Kevin Graham

 

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