Republican News · Thursday 8 June 1999

[An Phoblacht]

Celtic's image wars

The marketing men have an eye on Celtic's Irishness, but it will be sanitised and airbrushed of the working class reality of my community - the community that built and sustained the club for over a century
I've never been into TV soaps. I never pondered why I've remained immune, despite the widespread addiction among seemingly sound people. I've discovered solid comrades who have been secretly living in Brookside and on Deep Space Nine for years. It's at time like that you realise you are a little different to your fellow humans - it's actually a nice feeling.

Well that was what I thought about me and soap operas until the most recent twist in the fortunes of the Love Of My Life - Glasgow Celtic.

For all of these years I didn't need to know if Sinbad had got his window money or that the Gamma Quadrant was invaded by hordes of dysfunctional table jellies. Now I know why. I wasn't immune from the soap opera addiction after all. I've had Celtic - the biggest soap opera in Irish sport. I was deluded by the official fiction that this is a soccer club, owned by a Plc, of which Derrig is a minor, yet vital, shareholder. But no, its' a feckin' soap for all who harbour a rebel heart.

The latest episode has just got under way. After enduring a season where a laid back aristo from the Caribbean and his monosyllabic Jock mentor served us up a bunch of, well, dysfunctional table jellies. After the Omnibus Season From Hell, Celtic's coming home. We've got one of our own about the place and he's a class operator from South Derry. Kilrea man Martin O'Neill is the club's new manager at. He insisted on the old-fashioned title, not ``Head Coach'' or ``Director of Football Operations'' or any other rubbis.

He's the gaffer, Numero Uno, The Big Cheese. He's the Guy Who Stops The Buck. He's now Patriarch of the Clan of Green.

There is a subcurrent at Celtic at corporate box level that is reminiscent of Fianna Fáil. Totally corrupt, sloshing around in sleaze, but it's in their relationship to the culture of their bedrock support that the analogy is most illuminating.

The corporate clones at Parkhead see the massive marketing potential of Celtic as the Global Gaeltacht's soccer team. From being the game of the European and Latin American working classes 50 years ago, soccer is now THE global game. No other sport comes close. The world cup final is the most watched sports event in human history. The global game is an integral part of the global economy, and that economy is driven by marketing.

The marketing men have an eye on Celtic's Irishness, but it will be sanitised and airbrushed of the working class reality of my community - the community that built and sustained the club for over a century. There has been a revisionism at work at Celtic in the last decade that would make the History department at UCD look like a meeting of a republican Think Tank.

Firstly, Fergus McCann sought to strip Celtic of any outward vestiges of its ethnicity. He stated baldly that Celtic was a Scottish club. The season that Celtic rented Hampden Park, the Irish Tricolour was banned from Scotland's national stadium.

McCann had no problem with this and said that he wouldnt miss the flag if it didn't fly over the newly-built Celtic Park the following season. This was stated to appease the hostile host community and to distance the club from the republican subculture that gives the club its bedrock support. It was also a cynical observation that the buses would still be leaving Donegal every Saturday morning come what may.

McCann, ironically a North American businessman, didn't see the marketing potential of the Celtic brand in Irish America. Dermot Desmond does. In all of this, Dermot Desmond remained silent, having weighed in with 3 million at the time of McCann's takeover. Perhaps he was otherwise engaged in other commercial activities - currently appearing at Flood and Moriarty.

Now, however, Desmond is very much in charge. It was his power on the board that got Martin ONeill placed as the new man in charge. He blocked everyone else's choice - former Dutch national coach Guus Hiddink. Desmond wants the Irish identity of the club rescued, but what kind of Irish identity?

The Irish identity that Celtic gave me was a working class republican one. This does not sit well with the Mohair man. Not only would he be uncomfortable with the Celtic support's celebration of struggle against British rule, but even more now with the developing republican labour class politics being advanced by Sinn Féin.

So there is a battle for the DNA of Celtic's Irishness.

When Martin O'Neill came out to greet the fans as the new manager, he was thrown a Celtic scarf from the crowd. He instinctively picked it up and held it aloft as he had done himself on the old terraces during the glory years under Jock Stein. The scarf not only said Celtic, but also had the lines from a republican ballad about it being `Slán Abhaile' time for the British Army in Ireland. O'Neill's Plc media minder saw the negative PR implications and quickly supplied O'Neill with a nice sanitised Celtic scarf.

In that one vignette is the script for the next episode of my own soap opera. Celtic, if they are to compete in the big boys' league, will have to go global. That means utilising their unique selling proposition within the world's rapidly expanding soccer market. Celtic's marketing gameplan can only be Ireland and Irishness.

The corporate suits will want to do that, while hoovering out anything that smacks of the real Irish ancestry of Celtic - the real culture of the club is Irish republicanism and the struggle of a working class Irish community in Glasgow to make sense of itself. It used a soccer club to preserve its dignity as a human community in the face of systematic discrimination. That discrimination hasn't gone away, you know.

Desmond's vision is for a Bord Fáilte Celtic as a vehicle for selling third world merchandise to Irish Americans who wouldnt know a wing back from a corner flag. His marketing people must do that while making sure that they do not, finally, turn off the most loyal fans in the world, those who leave Dublin, Letterkenny and New Lodge Road every Saturday morning en route to Scotland.

That will be a difficult balancing act.


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