We had qualified for a ticket to City away at Parkhead, truly one to cross off the List of Grounds to Visit. Unrestricted tickets were available on our points, they said, so I booked two. Train and accommodation were then needed. Cheaper the better – not easy given that the champions league draw was announced on 25 August, but tickets arrangements announced three weeks later and our place only secured 12 days before.
But it was for Parkhead, Celtic Park. ‘Raucous’ home of Celtic FC, according to Google Maps, which either has affective monitoring software or a committed Bhoy on its team. ‘Paradise’ is the club’s own hyperbolic moniker for the ground. Delusional self-congratulation? We’d find out.
Before we took on the Hoops, several of the administrative type had to be negotiated. Before you got your hands on a precious match ticket you need to remember to pack your IDs – seasoncard, plus photo ID plus letter showing confirmation of booking – and take all that down to the designated ticket pick-up point, at the Old Fruitmarkets in the rebranded Merchant City area at the eastern edge of the city centre.
Our first attempt got nowhere. The queues snaked around the ground and onto the main road, and Blues were grumbling about a two-hour wait. Fuck. That. We changed plan, went to eat and drink first and hoped the queues would die down nearer to kick off. Some fans can take this in their stride, seeing it as a necessary part of top-tier European football where safety and security (and fan homogeneity) are prerequisites, but I make no apologies for being more selfish, feeling that I have spent hundreds of pounds and risked a partner’s ire for a trip that shouldn’t be sullied by officious box-ticking exercises. Whether the club or UEFA take more responsibility for the initiative is moot, but City could have put more people on to make it a swifter process. But after about half an hour, we finally got ours, were processed out into a side street and had a last pint before pitching up about the dry zone that is a Champion’s League stadium – and make sure you are 30 minutes early and also wearing that armband you were given. This week, it would seem the anger and subsequent petitioning of some was vindicated as City scrapped the scheme for the other two group away UCL games.
En route to the east end, our cab driver told us about the Scottish league’s crazy idea to have the second Old Firm derby of the season a few hours before the Hogmanay celebrations. He’s looking to the uptick in fares, but much of the hospitality industry in town is not.
Again, as a ruling the UCL stadium booze ban could be seen as small beer but it’s a rank slice of exclusion that those in executive seats can drink away while those of us in the *cheap* seats cannot enjoy their ritualistic pint before the match or at half time. The justification that no alcohol brands can be seen by the TV cameras is even more nonsensical when we’re talking about a pint in an unmarked plastic pint in a concourse too far away to compete with the Heineken hoardings.
Out came the teams, City sporting their latest “Buy This” orange and mauve number (described as sick by my twins) where our traditional sky blue would do against a team in green and white. I don’t know whether Celtic fans were protesting the fine for holding aloft Palestinian flags but that ticket ordeal meant our habitual booing of the ‘Champion’s League anthem’ (Marc calls the adaptation of “Zadok the Priest” Lasaaagne – go on try it) would not cease as our hot new manager Guardiola would like. With ex-United executive David Gill doing his best to ensure the traditional elite stay as such, and after some ridiculous bans and fines as well as the FFP fiasco, some of our fans are far from ready to give up our sense of outsider status yet.
We'd be drowned out by 55,000 Celtic fans of course, but Blues were in raucous voice themselves. And there was only the odd “Rule Britannia” chant to ignore, with just a few City wind-up merchants sporting Union Jacks. But then the pro-Rangers, loyalist element of City has always been played up in contradistinction to United’s Catholic links. Celtic’s main ties are to Liverpool – though you could have added Arsenal in the 70s. Favouring a united Ireland, Celtic as the mainland representatives of that aspiration always won my backing and I admire their determination to promote solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Nonetheless, part of me is beginning to think the club should dial down the sectarian identity several notches (both Glasgow clubs are not allowed to sing their songs of hatred but routinely still do).
For most of the game these bureaucratic niggles and supporter differences could be forgotten as City and Celtic slugged it out in a thrilling 3-3, and City fans could only be impressed by the regular wall of noise coming from all corners of the home crowd, not least the much vaunted safe standing corner. English fans regularly dismiss anything choreographed in the form of fans with loudspeakers leading the charts, prompting everyone jumping up and down at the same time, but this was impressive. New Celtic manager Brendan Rogers said he had previously not heard a din like it there, so clearly there was something in this Battle of Britain that fired the imagination more than, say, a 5-1 thrashing of Rangers earlier that month.
Parkhead roof. It came off three times pic.twitter.com/2MnKIZgYXu— muzboxx (@murray__w) September 28, 2016
Back out after a pulsating match, only slightly disappointed City couldn’t quite find the winner, and the police presence is still highly visible, only fading out half a mile or so along the London Road. I muttered something probably factually incorrect about the SNP sorting out the public sector spending up here. It did seem OTT to an English fan used to minimal policing operations, but I did not hear any reports of trouble in Glasgow that day. It was after about 25 minutes walking in ever worsening rain that we decided to duck into a fast food place. Truly soaked, we needed to dry off – and have a kebab or a chana daal as to taste. We eventually got a night out, a Scottish friend showing us a couple of great bars that saw us into the early hours.
As many point out, the system particularly at UEFA Champions League games is an active turn-off for matchgoing fans who are a long way down the priority list from Official Sponsors and worldwide viewers seeing the simulacrum on TV. Yet a more intelligent version of the ticketing system probably needs to be in place to stop people buying up loads of tickets and passing them on - loads more needs to be done to stop too many ending up in the hands of 'official' touts too. Oh and the seats did have restricted view.
Nevertheless, we’d look back on the game, as others did, as a restorative blast of noise and passion, the type that makes you want to come back again and again in search of a similar experience despite the multiple inconveniences and rip-off prices.