I am neither a technophile nor technophobe. I use a laptop and Blackberry for the basics but none of the smart stuff that others do. An average user. Because of this, I was identified by one of the global communications providers as a candidate to test a new App, which they are testing for the market. I had to sign a strict Non Disclosure Agreement and am sworn to secrecy and cannot mention their name nor anything about the technology.
I asked what this was all about. It was explained to me that this new App allows conversations with the deceased, like an electronic séance, and would I have a candidate that I would like to communicate with.
What a chance I thought. It has to be Brother Walfrid. Imagine being able to ask him about his views of Celtic from inception to the present day. I put in my request and waited excitedly for a response, unable to share with anyone. Two days later, I was contacted by the company and told that Brother Walfrid had agreed to my request. I could interview him by App the next Monday afternoon.
Over that weekend, I worked out all my questions. It was not going to be a recount of history. Everyone knows that. In essence, I wanted to find out if he thought that Celtic had lived up to his vision or had disappointed him.
Monday afternoon came and I went early to the secret location – I had to use their computer as they could not install it on mine but I would be given the recorded transcript.
At 3pm I was amazed when this crackly voice came over the computer and identified himself as Brother Walfrid.
I introduced myself – Hrvatski Jim – he had looked me up in the great celestial database and knew all about me. He knew that the first time I saw a full Celtic match was on 25th May 1967 when I was 7 years old. He knew that night defined much of my life.
He knew that I attended my first match at Celtic Park on 7th December 1968 when the St. Mirren goalkeeper, Denis Connaghan, was man of the match despite losing 5 – 0.
He knew that I had followed Celtic through so many ups and downs, sometimes missing the big occasions but being there when hardly anyone else was. He knew my dedication – the joys and the tears – that was why he agreed to talk. I was honoured.
So, introductions over, the interview began:
Q: Brother Walfrid – You had a charitable vision as Celtic’s raison d’être but, from day one, you saw Celtic as a commercial enterprise. Was this unusual in those days and did it cause controversy within the group of founders?
A: No. We all knew that a football club had to be financially successful to attract the players and build the facilities for the supporters so that they would keep coming. There was so much poverty around us and just taking up street collections for the supper table would not have worked for any length of time. We were all agreed that we had to do it properly.
At the end of our first year, we were able to donate £421 to the soup kitchens. It does not sound much now, but at that time, the average man was earning about £1 per week, about £50 per year. So this was equivalent to about the annual wages of 8 men. Today an average wage may be about £25,000 so this was worth about £200,000 in today’s terms. We were very pleased with that.
Q: Do you think that you got the balance between charity and commerciality right and has the club always maintained the right balance?
A: That is very difficult to answer. The club has been run by people and they have done it their own way. I think that the motives have been right but not always so successful in meeting our charitable mission.
For a while Celtic was going to be driven out of business by the spending policies at Rangers. At the time it looked like we just could not compete. Now we know that they could not sustain it. But it did make it difficult for Celtic to donate directly to charity when the club was under so much financial pressure.
The fans of the club have always done a lot off their own initiative and this seems to be increasing even though times are hard by modern standards. I think that is wonderful and truly in the Celtic spirit.
Q: What more could the club do?
A: I would like to see Celtic play a high profile challenge match every season. Not a friendly with 7 substitutions – a real challenge match like the one we played Real Madrid in 1967 when they wanted to show that they should have been European champions. Or the UNICEF game against Benfica when the great Eusabio played. Make it a real event in the calendar – invite the current European champions to play us without taking a fee so that everything goes to a charity.
From a footballing point of view, it would also expose our players to the highest class opposition which would gain them experience which could be useful for Europe campaigns.
Above all it would remind the world why Celtic exists.
Q: What do you feel about the salaries that players get today?
A: They seem enormous to me but remember that we paid more to get our first players from Hibernian and other teams so it was like that in the early days also to some extent. I wish the players well and hope that they use their wealth for good. Some of them put a lot back to the home communities so some of the money goes to people who need the money indirectly.
Q: Celtic had only 4 managers for the first 90 years but after Jock Stein, has had 11 managers over just 35 years. What do you think of that? Does our recent record reflect badly on us?
A: I hope that we go back to the old days and keep Celtic men who understand the traditions of the club in charge and give them time to build new teams and a successful club. Neil Lennon is a perfect example and we should support him and give him time. He has worked at youth level and then stepped up. This is what I want to see. It worked for Liverpool for many years when new home-grown managers came after Bill Shankly. A successful dynasty was established. Going outside can be a mistake – the grass is not always greener elsewhere.
Many clubs see a weakness in their manager and then appoint someone with an opposite approach to counteract it. But, they often have to swap round a playing squad which is costly and they end up with a different problem. I like continuity from within.
Q: What events have made you especially proud of Celtic?
A: Every day I am proud but there have been times when the club has really stood up for its principles.
When the SFA wanted us to take down the Irish tricolour which signifies our roots, we could have faced oblivion as there would have been nowhere else to go. This was at a time when Celtic was one of the few institutions that gave the Catholic immigrant community a cause to rally round when they had not been properly assimilated into the wider community. Bob Kelly showed his mettle under immense pressure and preserved that part of our identity. We should always fly the Scottish and Irish flags – we have these dual roots.
Again, in 1969 we had a voice as recent European champions and stood up to the might of the USSR when they invaded Prague to crush a people’s protest at living under invasion. Again, we could have faced heavy football sanctions but we made the right stance. It showed the oppressed people that we stood up for them.
Q: When have you been ashamed of Celtic?
A: The bitterness with Rangers gets out of hand. We started Celtic to improve people’s wellbeing, not to cause trouble after matches and fill the hospitals. When I hear of violence in the name of Celtic, it makes me sad. We played our first game against Rangers as a friendly and Rangers were very well disposed towards us. Unfortunately, the divide in Glasgow got a lot worse over the years and so much trouble resulted. We never meant that. I hope that it will be different in future but I doubt it.
The time when Fergus McCann was booed because he was not risking our finances by spending more was shameful, especially so soon after we were nearly out of business. Thank goodness that people now recognise his wisdom.
The Rapid Vienna match in Manchester was another time. We all know the injustice that caused the replay but pictures of a Celtic fan attacking an opposition goalkeeper went round the world and did a lot of damage to the club’s image.
Q: You mentioned the Irish flag as part of our roots. But how do you feel about Irish politics at Celtic park? For instance, there was a famous day in 1972 when Jock Stein left the dugout at Stirling Albion in and jumped into the crowd to tell our supporters to stop singing IRA songs.
A: Ah Hrvatski Jim – I have just looked up that day in the database and I see that this was your first ever away game. But you were not at another away game for a few years. How did that happen?
Me: My family never had a car but my uncle came back home from Australia for a summer holiday and hired a yellow VW Beetle. He was actually a Partick Thistle fan before he left for Australia but he asked if I wanted to go to Stirling. I was 13 and remember going to this small ground and watching in amazement when Jock Stein went into the crowd at half time. It was across the ground from where we were so we did not really know what was going on but we know now that he told the fans that the players responded to proper Celtic songs.
It was only when I was a bit older that I got going to away games regularly when I could go on my own on public transport.
Brother Walfrid: Well – to answer the question – Celtic Park is for football on a Saturday. If people want to attend a political rally, they should go somewhere else.
Q: Earlier, you mentioned the time when Rangers were spending so much that Celtic could not compete and needed a last minute saviour in Fergus McCann. How did you feel then when the families that had been the trustees of Celtic until then lost their influence? Michael Kelly talked about “the battle for the soul of Celtic”. Was that battle won or lost?
A: I was worried that the club would fall into the wrong hands – definitely. At that time there were high profile people around like Robert Maxwell the newspaper owner and it worried me that someone like him would have bought Celtic for the publicity and milk it for everything that they could. Initially, I wanted a solution to come from within but it became obvious that the old board did not have the commercial skills to rebuild the club.
Fergus was indeed a saviour. He had to face comments like this from a board which had had plenty time to put a strategy in place but which has alienated much of the most loyal support of any club in the world. The soul of Celtic is the supporters coming together to watch the team play the Celtic way and honour the club’s traditions. Celtic Park was virtually empty. I do understand that they were concerned that average fans would be priced out of the game if it became too commercial, but the fans were not coming anyway. They should have looked at what they were doing to the soul of Celtic.
Fergus didn’t just rebuild the ground and walk away with a big profit. He rebuilt the foundations of the club by bringing in good people like Brian Quinn and Dermot Desmond who have kept the club on the right path. Our charity activity increased and we made it clear that we are a club for everyone who wants to support us. That was us going back to our roots and preserving our soul.
We had a wobble when we were overspending during Martin O’Neill’s period in charge. Now, we are back to developing our own players – some from Scotland and others from abroad. Some will have to be sold but if the money is reinvested in the club, we can keep progressing. Many years ago our great manager Willie Maley and the board at the time agreed that young player development would be the way forward for the club. We all have even more joy from watching a Celtic developed player do well than someone who just came to us for a year or two. Our greatest team ever was full of home grown players. They become the soul of Celtic, especially those who stay with us for most or all of their career like Jimmy McGrory, Sean Fallon, John Clark, Billy McNeill, Tommy Burns, Paul McStay, Danny McGrain. There are so many like them.
Q: Brother Walfrid – my time is nearly up. What is your best ever Celtic eleven?
A: Oh, I will have to think quickly here. There have been so many, especially attacking players. It may be a bit light defensively but the opposition would never have the ball so we don’t need many defenders. Here goes:
Danny McGrain, Billy McNeill, George Connelly and Tommy Gemmell
Bobby Murdoch, Paul McStay and Kenny Dalglish
Jimmy Johnstone, Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox
I will get pelters up here for all the names I missed out!
Q: So do you spend your time up there talking about Celtic?
A: Yes. It’s full of Celts up here. As you know, there are many mansions here and we have taken over one and turned it into the biggest Celtic Supporters club anywhere. Never stop talking about the latest game or signing.
Brother Walfrid – our time is up. You have provided many wise words which will be shared with the Celtic support. Thank you so much.
Footnote – as soon as my interview was finished the celestial firewall team erected a barrier to block this App and it has had to be abandoned. Therefore, my interview with Brother Walfrid will forever remain a Celtic First and Only!
Written by Hrvatski Jim for CQN Magazine, issue 15.