In the early days of 1989, I was part of a Celtic team under the guidance of Billy McNeill that travelled to Ibrox for the vital New Year clash with Rangers. All of us were looking forward to the game, especially in the knowledge that we were about to fly out to Malaga in Spain for some warm-weather training.
The itinerary was perfect; four days away from the harsh Glasgow winter, a couple of rounds of golf had been organised, we were encouraged to have a few beers and, with a bit of sun on our backs, we would ease back into match fitness with some gentle training on the last couple of mornings.
We didn’t go. After losing 4-1, it was cancelled by our manager who knew immediately how this would look to the Celtic supporters. A jolly in the sun after losing to Rangers? McNeill knew the power of perception. In his mind, it was everything.
I listened alongside Paul McStay, Roy Aitken, Tommy Burns, Pat Bonner and Peter Grant as Billy explained how he felt. We understood. Pretty much every team-mate I had in that side knew instinctively how it would look and there were no dissenters when Billy pulled the plug.
He told us it would be deeply insensitive to travel to the Costa Del Sol when we had lost to our greatest rivals and, typically, he turned it into a PR masterclass. He donated the funds for that trip to a school for future use. A looming PR disaster suddenly became a touch of class.
What a contrast to the events unfolding now.
A few hours after Celtic’s 1-0 defeat at Ibrox on Saturday, the management, players and staff flew to Dubai for their annual winter break and are now being heavily criticised by fans and politicians alike.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been painfully explaining to the nation how we must make even more sacrifices in this terrible struggle we are all facing, and her deputy John Swinney has accused Celtic of setting a bad example.
I’m always suspicious of politicians when they get involved in football. Too often I see MPs north and south of the border trying to make political capital at the expense of our game, but they have a point on this issue.
Celtic’s poor line of defence is that their Dubai plans were government-approved in November. The reality is that we are all acutely aware of how unpredictable this virus has become. So much has happened since November that it’s foolish to think what was in order a few weeks ago still stands.
If only the Celtic of today had someone like Billy McNeill who could grasp the feelings of the supporters in an instant and understand what they are all going through in these extraordinary times. Sadly, there’s no one.
Those in the boardroom stand accused of a complete lack of understanding as to what it means to be a Celtic supporter and I doubt you could find one who spends any time with ordinary fans.
The next time Celtic fans get a message from the privileged boardroom, it will no doubt be a call to dig deep into their pockets and renew their season tickets. No wonder some fans are in despair.
I’m sure there’s one or two of the current squad who feel extremely uncomfortable that while most of the general public are enduring enormous personal sacrifices, unable to see family or friends, they are lying by the side of the pool sipping beers or on the golf course. It’s not a good look.
Even if you put to one side the fact that Celtic blew their chances of getting back into the title race at Ibrox on Saturday, it seems as though everyone at the club is able to justify that during a global pandemic, it’s a positive image for players, managers and a few hangers on to completely ignore what is happening at home.
I know of Celtic supporters who have been unable to see their grandchildren for the last 10 months, some have hardly crossed the threshold of their own front door in that time. Others daren’t get close enough to even touch their loved ones for too long.
The problem with Celtic just now is that they come across as being totally inflexible. ‘We’ve booked a trip and we don’t care that things have changed. We know the whole of the UK is in a lockdown, but we can’t do anything about it’. I’d argue that a bit of compassion and understanding wouldn’t go amiss.
As a captain and manager, Billy McNeill continually set a wonderful example and could easily grasp the mood of the Celtic support. No one at the club these days comes anywhere near his stature.