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“The football ground, that place of pilgrimage, is the one tangible constant which binds the fan to his or her club. Even if the stands change, even if one changes position from terraces to seats, or from the seats to the private box, the ground harbours the soul of the club”.
When football historian Simon Inglis penned those words back in the early 1980s he was evoking a sentiment which almost all football fans would have recognised. But during the past two decades safety legislation and commercial ambition have resulted in a huge number of clubs packing up their belongings and swapping their long time traditional homes for new all seater arenas.
Now, in the overtly-commercial world of football in the 21st century, a stadium is, more than ever, about one thing - generating profit. Given these far-reaching changes Inglis’ sentiments seem at best romantic and at worst redundant. But for Celtic fans the history of their Parkhead ground at least ensures his words retain more than an element of truth.
The Celtic Park of today is of course as much about cash income as any other ground but for every follower of the Bhoys it has always been ‘home’. It has stood proudly on its present site since 1892 and for many fans attending games at Parkhead means literally following in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
The very first Celtic Park was originally sited on what was to become the Barr’s factory site. However after just a few years at their original home the Bhoys were forced to move in 1892 when, following the early success of the club, the landlord hastily raised the rent to an extortionate level. With a resilient committee and an ever growing band of enthusiastic supporters Celtic were not to be deterred by this setback and quickly identified a disused and flooded quarry near to the original pitch and adjacent the Eastern Necropolis.
A huge army of volunteers worked tirelessly to convert what was effectively a huge hole in the ground into a first class sporting arena. The second Celtic Park was truly impressive and its size and facilities underlined the ambition of a young and forward thinking club. Visitors to the new ground were so impressed that one journalist, noting the proximity to the necropolis, famously commented the move was akin to “…moving from the graveyard into Paradise”.
By the war years Hampden and Ibrox may have went on to surpass Celtic Park in terms of both capacity and facilities but the terracing of the Parkhead stadium would remain the holy ground for the Celtic faithful.
By the late 1950s floodlights had been installed. The four huge pylons dominated the skyline of Glasgow’s east end for more than 30 years. For supporters travelling to games or exiled fans returning to Glasgow, the distant sight of the giant floodlights piercing the all too often grey sky was enough to send a tingle down the spine.
With the floodlight era came the big European ties. These midweek evening games under the lights brought a new sense of drama and occasion to Celtic Park and gave birth to an atmosphere which is still commonly regarded as among the very best in football.
The stadium changed beyond recognition under the reign of Fergus McCann. Steep stands with their bright green seats now tower over the pitch. The Jungle is gone and the huge sweeping terrace of the Celtic End is just a memory. McCann said: “It is a symbol, it makes a statement of where Celtic has come to, over a century after its humble beginnings. It is a source of pride to the support as it dominates the skyline of the East End of Glasgow.”
But while concrete and steel can be easily demolished it will take much more than a wrecking ball to remove the spirit and sense of history which enshrouds Paradise.
Yes there are executive boxes, heated seats and plush restaurants. But this remains the same park where Jimmy Quinn charged through defences and Jimmy McGrory bulleted the ball into net. It is the same site Patsy Gallacher and Charlie Tully danced past defenders and where the Lisbon Lions brought home the European Cup.
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