The Battle for Celtic’s Soul

Celtic is renowned for its radical roots, but recent months have seen a struggle between fans and owners over its future direction. It's another of modern football's battles between communities and corporations.

Recently, Celtic Football Club faced its worst run since 1958, despite what is arguably the most important season in the club’s history: the squad is chasing the storied ten titles in a row. Ahead of today’s Old Firm derby against Rangers, Celtic lie sixteen points behind their opponents in the table. This season has seen them lose or draw with a host of clubs usually considered minnows, as well as dumped unceremoniously out of the Champions League, Europa League and League Cup.

After months of weakness, frustration with the inaction of the club’s board of directors boiled over. The protests of Sunday 29 November were mostly unremarkable: thousands of supporters turned up outside Celtic Park to (peacefully) express their anger, and Police Scotland—whose aggressive enforcement of the 2012 Football Act has generated a fractious relationship with Celtic fans—erected a fence around the front of the stadium. Minor scuffles followed.

Against that backdrop, moral panic briefly gripped Scotland. Protestors were branded neds, yobs and ‘fake fans’; the press were told that Celtic’s largest shareholder, Irish billionaire Dermot Desmond (a man who has had far more legal trouble than the average Celtic fan), would back the board of directors purely out of spite. Celtic’s Chief Executive, Peter Lawwell—who is paid £3.5m per year—called on the supporters and the club to ‘move forward together’ and then quickly approved the construction of a steel fence around the stadium’s perimeter.

The lives of working-class Celtic fans in the East End would be familiar to many communities who’ve faced a decade of austerity after a sustained period of deindustrialisation. If they’re not struggling with wage stagnation and privatised housing, they’re contending with a sadistically bureaucratic benefits system and a mishandled pandemic response. Fans could be forgiven for an explosion, particularly when it had become so clear that the wealthy elite running the club was so divorced from its history and ethos.

In order to understand Celtic, you have to understand the East End of Glasgow. The sprawling neighbourhood in which Celtic’s stadium is located, and from where it has traditionally drawn many of its players and supporters, remains one of the most impoverished parts of Britain. Twenty years on from Iain Duncan Smith’s 2002 ‘Easterhouse epiphany’, Parkhead West, the statistical unit which includes the stadium, is ranked within the bottom two per cent of Scottish neighbourhoods in terms of average income.

One 2019 survey found that the average male life expectancy in the area is closer to those in parts of sub-Saharan Africa than to the wealthy suburbs to the west and north of the city. These inequalities have been aggravated by the pandemic: since the beginning of March, one charity alone has opened four food banks within a two-mile radius of Celtic Park

But any history of Celtic F.C. and the men and women who support it has to be embedded in a longer history of displacement, prejudice and resistance. The club was founded in 1888 by Irish emigrants under the aegis of the Marist priest Brother Walfrid. The shared birthday with Keir Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party is more than a coincidence. Both represent distinct parts of the wave of working-class self-organisation that would culminate in the New Unionism of the Matchgirls’ and Dockers’ strikes at the end of the decade, and, crucially, both mixed two approaches to working class life which remain evident in their descendant institutions: one of paternalism and charity, and one of outspoken and—for the ruling orders—dangerous radicalism.

No matter the high-minded motivations of its founders, until relatively recently, Celtic was a club apart, with an intense religious and sometimes near-racialised distance separating its largely Irish Catholic supporters from the mainstream of Scottish society and, in particular, its upper classes. When the Scottish Church published an official report in 1923 entitled ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’, it was acting entirely within the broad spectrum of public opinion about the role of the Irish foreigner in the healthy Presbyterian body politic. Employment discrimination persisted at least until the 1980s, and Scotland, and its West Coast in particular, maintains a small but vocal anti-Catholic Loyalist subculture.

Oppression, in football as in society, naturally breeds resistance. In 1952, the club was ordered by the Scottish Football Association to desist from flying the Irish tricolour. It ignored the instruction. Basque and Palestinian flags have been flown from the terraces of Parkhead since the 1980s. Celtic fans can find little grounds for complacency, though, with incidents of racism—ranging from the abuse of Rangers’ first black player, Mark Walters, in the eighties, to current player Leigh Griffiths’ history of racist provocations—providing a reminder of the limits of progressive politics within sporting rivalries.

But the club’s radical tradition endures, and finds its most recent iteration in grassroots fans’ group the Green Brigade. Formed in 2006, and building on the anti-fascist work of TAL magazine from the nineties, it echoes European ‘ultra’ groups in its visually stunning banners and its displays of solidarity at Parkhead with a range of left-wing causes, from Palestine to LGBT+ rights.

These matchday performances are backed up by a serious record of solidarity work, including contributions to anti-poverty initiatives in the East End of Glasgow and fundraising for sports equipment for Palestinian children. The relationship of the club’s management to the Green Brigade is an ambiguous one: directors cautiously welcome the excitement and passion the Brigade arouse among the wider support, but view them as a liability when it comes to UEFA policies which seek to sanitise football of politics.

Those who own and run the club and those who support it have never quite seen eye-to-eye, but echoes of post-war Scotland’s wider solidaristic culture can be traced through some of its leading figures. Jock Stein, widely recognised as Celtic’s greatest manager thanks to his 1967 European Cup success, worked as a miner in the Lanarkshire coalfields during WWII, where he had acted as a trade union representative. Billy McNeill, sometime manager and captain of the ‘Lisbon Lions’, was a self-described socialist in the model of ‘old Labour’ and a supporter of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.

For Celtic, as for football and politics more broadly, the 1990s are the roots of the present moment. As Tony Blair prepared to abolish Clause IV and welfare states were dismantled on both sides of the Atlantic, the club found itself mired in financial crisis and footballing mediocrity. Enter Fergus McCann, a Canada-based golfing tycoon and self-styled saviour of the club. As with other Scottish firms, like the John Brown shipyards and the Distillers’ Company, an injection of foreign capital was meant to put the club on a more sustainable footing – an objective reached with the club’s 1995 stock market floatation.

Changes in Celtic’s fortunes were mirrored by those of British football more broadly. After the historical nadirs of the Heysel disaster, hooliganism, and bans on English teams competing in Europe, football was to be reinvented on a financialised basis – a change ushered in with the advent of the Premier League. Combined with the end of standing in football grounds and the end of the Catholic-Protestant divide as one central to Scottish life, the stage was set for a new Celtic.

Like many clubs, in the future, Celtic was to be far less reliant on the physical body of supporters who attended games at its stadium week-in, week-out, and far more reliant on television-generated advertising revenue and its international brand. The football supporter was to be reimagined as a consumer, with none of the cultural and political baggage that might have once entailed.

Celtic, like every other modern British football club, has to manage a fundamental contradiction: it’s simultaneously a store of working-class tradition, in which millions put hope, and a corporation run on profit-seeking lines. Recent directors include one time Iraq War propagandist John Reid and Tory peer Ian Livingston, who resigned in 2017 following long-running protests over his votes for tax credit cuts.

Every transfer window, the board strips the club of its most valuable assets and auctions them off to the highest bidder. It’s a familiar irony in modern football that a club founded with the purpose of giving expression to Glasgow’s Irish poor now delivers profits for shareholders by flogging overpriced branded products to the descendants of those same communities. As the Green Brigade succinctly put it, ‘our passion is only acceptable if it can be commodified’.

Not content with this profit gouging, Celtic increased the price of season tickets, demanding over £600 from supporters. Season tickets sold out. The small print of the club website informed fans that they were entitled to a refund from the unfulfilled fixtures of the previous season, but suggested that ‘true supporters’ would leave their money in the club. Most left their money in the club.

But that loyalty has been repaid by borderline contempt from the board towards the club’s fans and their protests this season. It would be easy to see them as a product of a spoiled fan base, accustomed to too much success. But their slogans have run far deeper – raising questions about the soul of a club that seems to be run as little more than a business. It’s increasingly hard to sustain the romantic view of Tommy Burns, a legendary player, that ‘when you put on the Celtic jersey, you’re not playing for a football team – you’re playing for a community and a cause’.

And yet, there might be small grounds for hope. As ‘sack the board’ banners hung from the fence around Parkhead, supporters group the Celtic Trust hosted a well-attended online meeting. The Trust is aiming for 50,000 paying members within 5 years, and its proposed strategy combines bringing together existing small shareholders and buying shares to be held in common.

It would be rash to make predictions, but anecdotally, the mood of Celtic supporters seems to have changed, and changed permanently. In a city where many cleave to Bill Shankly’s maxim which says that football is more important than life and death, there is a small but growing sense that it’s also too important to be left to the market. One day, perhaps, the rebels will win again.