OVER the last few seasons the domestic treble is beginning to look more elusive than ever.
It has been won by only two Celtic managers and the shadows of Jock Stein (who won it in 1967 and 1969) and Martin O’Neill (who secured the glittering prize in 2001) is growing larger by the day.
The atmosphere at Celtic Park has gradually grown more despondent after an unremarkable era which has featured a merry-go-round of careerist players.
Those that don’t succeed at Celtic rarely do elsewhere. The club’s success in Europe has also went into decline. There’s much being made in the media about the semi-final with Rangers but perhaps it’s fair to say many are relishing a potential Scottish Cup final with the east-coast’s sons of Ireland – Hibernian.
The relationship between Celtic and Hibs supporters is an intriguing one, at the 2013 Scottish Cup final between the clubs I remember a conversation with a father and son from Dublin.
They enjoyed the Irish connection with Hibs, feeling that Celtic fans were “too political”.
They had been spoon fed the notion that Hibs had been historically hard done by, running with the idea that Celtic had left the club for dead. One of the most memorable events of recent years was that aforementioned Scottish Cup final.
Perhaps unusually, there seemed to be a mutual recognition and tangible emotion between both sets of supporters. The Celtic fans were as moved by Sunshine on Leith as the Hibs faithful during You’ll Never Walk Alone, but things aren’t always rosy between fans.
The early roots of both clubs and how they were created remains a point of fascination and conjecture. One of the major bones of contention with Hibs supporters is the six players who were allegedly “stolen” from the Easter Road outfit to create the first Celtic side.
Among those six players there is none more enigmatic than the man known as “Darling” Willie Groves. Willie found the net 16 times in 18 games for Celtic. His story adds to the mythology often associated with the Parkhead club and even his grave has been shrouded in mystery for some time.
Among the many unusual stories about Groves is that he is said to be in an unmarked plot in Edinburgh’s Newington cemetery; he’s not actually buried beneath his gravestone according to a local genealogist.
One journalist suggests he was the great-grand son of a police officer investigating the crimes of Deacon Brodie. What’s certain is that Groves was the superstar of his era, in Celtic’s first Scottish Cup run he found the net a remarkable 10 times in that competition alone.
Hibs historian Alan Lugton describes “Groves as probably the best player Scotland ever produced.” Many Celtic and Hibs historians are in agreement that Celtic’s “recruitment had a touch of piracy about it” as Pat Woods and Tom Campbell suggest in The Glory And The Dream.
“They were six members of a fantastic Hibs team” offers Lugton. The Hibs historian has recalled one particular statement on more than one occasion. “There was a bitterly humorous thing said at the time – ‘When these men were with Hibernian football club, they played only for faith and Ireland. When they went to Celtic, they played for 30 shillings’.
He suggests the actions of Celtic were a “disaster” for Hibs. A quick scan through a variety of Hibs message boards on this takes things to the extreme, with one fan describing Celtic’s actions as “attempted murder” after watching a documentary about the subject on RTÉ.
Brendan Sweeney’s recent book Celtic: The Early Years (1887-1892) offers a broader perspective. He suggests there are a number of factors that have to be considered:
Willie Groves never hung about anywhere too long, there is this assertion that Celtic came along and stole six players. It’s not true, we did take six of Hibernian’s best players but we didn’t do anything that they or any other team weren’t doing. Hibs had taken some of those players from Lugar Boswell in Ayrshire. They took them over a number of years but it’s possible they took three players after one game and five or six over a period of years. Lugar Boswell just had to get on with it. When Celtic took those players, Hibs responded by going to Carfin Shamrock and others – that was the culture.
It’s a point often made by supporters of Hibernian that without the existence of the Leith club there would be no Celtic. At the same time, it’s unlikely there would be a Hibernian today had it not been for the drive and push for professionalism by Celtic.
Few historians would disagree that Celtic’s John H. McLaughlin saved Scottish football from entering the doldrums. “We needed decisive head strong figures – it was all for the greater good of Celtic”, says Sweeney. “We had a lot against us so we needed strong willed people like John H. McLaughlin. Two of his big successes are Celtic and also the establishment of the Scottish league in 1890. We were playing teams ad-hoc in friendly matches week in, week out – is that a future for success?”
Without the wherewithal of McLaughlin and the call for professionalism by Celtic, many teams would’ve simply lost momentum and folded. There’s also a lot of misunderstanding about the reasons for Hibernian’s exclusivity and its early relationship with the Catholic Young Men’s Society.
It’s a complex phase, but one thing Sweeney makes clear is that key Hibernian figures were very public about the political situation in Ireland. At the time this upset the Catholic establishment and resulted in Hibs loosing vital committee members.
To this day, both clubs are unique in that they are Scots born Irish institutions – Dundee United dumped it’s Irish past a long time ago, but for both Celtic and Hibernian that is impossible to do for obvious reasons.
Both clubs continue to bring a different energy and colour to our football culture and together they keep the green flag flying high. The relationship between them probably deserves some closer inspection, but it’s fair to say there is something of a shared history even now.
It’s lifted many Celtic fans to see loanee Liam Henderson develop at Easter Road, playing alongside Anthony Stokes with the ultimate aim of becoming a first team Celtic player.
This journey has been a benefit to both clubs and most fans are happy with the arrangement. Similarly, the rumours of Alan Stubbs returning to Celtic continue to abound, now wouldn’t be the right time for a number of reasons but Alan will continue to be respected among Celtic fans for his commitment as a player and his character as a man – who knows what the future will hold?
We share the vision of “pure, beautiful and inventive football” not to mention sharing the manager who gave us that quote. From Stein to Tony Mowbray and Willie Groves to Pat Stanton or Derek Riordan to Leigh Griffiths, there are figures, triumphs and disasters that have fundamentally shaped or played a small part in the story of both clubs with varying degrees of success.
Banter and rivalry are healthy but there’s a certain vintage of fan who enjoys the pathological dislike of another team. They pass on myths, unforgiving grievances and half-truths to the next generation.
When you look at the wider struggle of Celtic and Hibernian and the climate in which they were created as well as the many positive values they share today, there is more to unite than divide.
While the media focus on the return of Rangers to the top flight, many supporters have been watching the development of a hungry and committed Hibs side adding colour and vigour to our sporting life.
Should they win promotion and a spot in the Scottish Cup final, and should Celtic stick to their end of the bargain in the other semi-final, then the battle of the greens would be a thrilling prospect once again.