“The first person who came up to us was Neil Lennon himself, just after he finished his television interviews. He was funny, thoughtful, caring and very personable…”
It was the smell of the grass that surprised me; that freshly cut smell in the middle of winter. The walk to the centre circle also seemed long, but perhaps I just wanted it to last forever. In truth, my son Tony dictated the pace for all four of us: his Mum Pauline, and his brother Martin and I. We were walking onto Celtic Park at half-time during the league game against Hearts on 19th January, 2013.
In October 2011, Tony was diagnosed with a terminal illness that has at least three names, but only one wretched outcome. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Motor Neurone Disease, is also known in the USA (where we all now live) as Lou Gehrigs Disease. The disease was identified in 1939 as the reason for the debilitation and sudden loss of form by the New York Yankees baseball player.
Tony has been an active sportsman all his life: rugby, basketball, cricket, judo and gymnastics featured early in his life, but it was as a football goalkeeper and centre half that he truly found his métier. He played for Berkshire schools as goalkeeper, and in one England Schools FA game, prevented a young striker called Rio Ferdinand from scoring. However, as with many keepers, Tony was convinced he was an even better outfield player. Unlike almost other goalies though, he was absolutely right: he was recruited to College in the USA as a centre back.
Tony has the same strain of ALS that claimed the lives of Celtic players Jimmy Johnstone & John Cushley. For Tony, it all began with a small but persistent muscle spasm in his upper right arm which defied initial medical diagnosis. A series of tests over 4 months confirmed our worst fears. He has now lost the use of his arms and hands, while walking is only possible with great difficulty and he is largely confined to a specially adapted chair at home. He uses eye control to use his PC which is his only real mode of communication. Despite all of this, Tony continues to face life with fortitude and humour. When relatives from the UK recently visited him, he told them that his “weightlifting career was probably over now”. One of his favourite moments since he was diagnosed was when he arranged to meet James Johnstone, son of Jimmy, at Celtic Park in 2012. Never having previously met, the rendezvous point on matchday seemed a problem until James simply said “I’ll see you at my Dad’s statue.”
The prospect of a trip to see Celtic play at Celtic Park has always brought a smile to his face, but the January 2013 trip was special. In view of his deteriorating condition, it would in all likelihood be his last visit to see his beloved Celtic play in Glasgow. I shamelessly contacted Paul Brennan at CQN and asked if he could suggest anything that might help make the trip even better. Paul contacted the club, simply relaying Tony’s story and the purpose of the trip. He warned me that the club get many such approaches and that it was entirely possible that nothing at all would happen.
On 17th January, we left Charlotte, North Carolina, and travelling via Newark, New Jersey arrived in Glasgow at 7.30am on Friday January 18. Our Sunday morning return flight meant that we would spend two whole days in Glasgow! We indulged ourselves a wee bit though by paying for the complete hospitality package for the game. It would make for easier access for Tony and allow him & us to perhaps see or meet some of his heroes. After an expensive visit to the Celtic shop, and a fine meal in the Walfrid, we stood up to make our way to our seats for the kick off only to be confronted by a smiling man. Iain Jamieson from Celtic introduced himself, and then astounded all of us by asking Tony if he would like to make the halftime Paradise Windfall draw on the pitch. Once Iain realized the extent of Tony’s disability, he readily invited all of us to accompany him onto the field.
We sat down in the directors’ box (seated next to men from Juventus who scribbled furiously throughout) and watched as Celtic scored two goals from Hooper & Samaras. Just before half time, we got the nod and made our way to the tunnel area, and stood like four dazzled school kids as the sweating players drifted past us to the changing room. We were waved on to the pitch, and, as we walked to the centre circle, the strains of Fields resonated round the stands. Somehow, we all managed to retain our composure as Martin helped Tony draw the winning ticket, and soon the lucky winner stumbled out of the North Stand to collect his winnings. He looked every bit as dazed as we felt.
We posed for official photographs and then took some of our own before resuming our seats. The Italians had left by now and Celtic completed their business scoring two second half goals. At full time, we had just returned to our table when Iain’s staff invited us down to tunnel/changing room area. Quite unable to believe what was happening, we took our 125th Anniversary strip with us in the hope that we could get some players to sign it. The reality exceeded our expectations.
The first person who came up to us was Neil Lennon himself, just after he finished his television interviews. He was funny, thoughtful, caring and very personable: telling Tony that he looked in good enough shape to train with the first team and that maybe Tony could shake things up a bit for him. He happily posed for photographs which we all treasure. Then, the changing room door swung open and the players drifted out, young & not so young, new and less so. Charlie Mulgrew, Victor Wanyama, Joe Ledley, Emilio Izzaguire, Scott Brown, Dylan McGeouch, Adam Matthews, and new signing, Tom Rogic. Kenny McKay also took the time to speak having also just joined Celtic TV, but two older men took our attention. Johann Mjalby signed the shirt and, for reasons that escape me, impressed Tony’s Mum, while Lisbon Lion John Clark was a character. When I asked him to sign the shirt, he drily replied “I will if you really want me too.” I told him that I had been at the 1965 Hampden Cup Final when we started the Stein era by beating Dunfermline 3-2. He looked unimpressed, but smiled a wee bit and then signed the strip anyway. We all smiled a lot that week-end, and still do when we reflect on how Celtic made Tony feel so very special on that cold day in January.
Thank you Celtic, Iain Jamieson & Paul Brennan.
Tony passed away on 20th February 2015 on what was a very sad day for the Celtic family. We thought we would wait a little while before posting this story about a very special day for Tony at Celtic Park.
Tony launched his own blogsite at www.dontshrink.com – please have a look.
The title has many roots: it refers to Jock Stein’s comment that Celtic jerseys don’t shrink to fit the player: to the nature of Tony’s disease that deprives muscles of nerve stimulus until they gradually shrink to uselessness. It is too a reminder to all of us not to shrink from this disease or those who suffer from it. It could also quite easily be the shout from the team before every match. Don’t Shrink!
Sleep well, Tony.