Sing When You're Winning: famous football fans reveal their allegiances
His team, Celtic, are on course for their 40th league title, rivals Rangers have just been knocked out of Europe and a star-struck traffic warden has just let him off a parking fine. George Galloway, not for the first time it has to be said, looks like the cat that got the cream. Barely out of the spotlight since his ejection from the Big Brother house, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow is clearly a natural showman. He poses and pouts enthusiastically for the FourFourTwo snapper until eventually it’s time to talk. Something else he does, of course, with great aplomb.
“Football was one of the things I missed most while in the Big Brother house,” says Galloway in that distinctive Scottish burr. “I heard that Ruud Gullit was going to be in the house and I was really looking forward to that because he is heterosexual, stylish and a wonderful footballer – three things I knew we’d be short of.” Instead, the former Labour MP was forced to turn to Dennis Rodman and Maggot for his football fix. “Dennis is an American, and therefore not entirely on the ball when it comes to soccer,” smiles Galloway.
Despite coming under fire for appearing on the Channel 4 show when he should perhaps have been looking after his constituency, Gorgeous George reckons his stock hasn’t fallen among his fellow fans. “If I went to Celtic next weekend I’d get a fantastic reaction from the crowd,” he says. His controversial backing of Saddam Hussein, however, has inspired at least one surprise terrace encounter in the past. “I went to see us play Dundee not long back and, as I made my way to my seat, someone shouted, ‘Hail the Tripoli Shamrock!’ I think they got Saddam confused with Gaddafi,” he says laughing.
Having been born in Dundee in 1954, Galloway was brought up a Catholic in Lochee, the Irish quarter of Dundee. With the influence of an Irish mother, the city’s two clubs never stood a chance.
“Celtic is more than just a football club it’s a cultural icon,” he explains. “It’s an emblem of the Irish diaspora which is very important to me.
“My father took me to my first game against Dunfermline in 1962. We won but I don’t know the score. I just remember the sea of green and white. There were 70 to 80,000 Celtic fans really crammed in – it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen,” he says, as his famous piercing blue eyes turn a tad misty. “The Irish flag flew then, as it does now over Parkhead, and I thought I was at home.”
Back then, George and his old man would stand on the terrace known as The Jungle. “You used to have to wade through a sea of piss,” he recalls. “People would piss down your back and sometimes beer bottles were hurled across the crowd.”
When he became a Glasgow MP in 1987, however, he befriended former club director Brian Dempsey and since then has enjoyed the games from the comfort of an executive box.
A degree of luxury you think just might challenge his socialist principles. “No, I have no qualms about it at all,” he says defiantly. “As Jimmy Durante [American singer from the 1930s] used to say, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and believe me, rich is better’.”
Since becoming a London MP, however, he confesses he hasn’t had the time to see as many games as he’d like to and is afraid he’s losing touch. “This season Gordon Strachan has introduced a lot of new players that I haven’t seen before and that’s a bit odd,” he says, “but hey, it’s clearly working.” When he does feel homesick for Celtic Park though, he meets up with the House of Commons’ Celtic Supporters Club – a 40-strong collective which includes defence minister John Reed among its members. “He’d be the most famous member,” says Galloway. “Well, apart from me.”
Whether publicly lambasting Tony Blair, dressing down the US Senate or haranguing his Big Brother housemates, George Galloway takes great pride in being controversially caustic. Comparing his relationship with Tony Blair to the enmity between Celtic and Rangers, he growls: “To paraphrase Bill Shankly, my hatred for Blair is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important that that.”
Interestingly, Galloway hasn’t attended an Old Firm game for 15 years for fear of provoking sectarian violence. As a Catholic Glasgow MP, his outspokenness about the problems in Ireland failed to win him any friends among the Loyalists. “They used to regularly threaten me and sometimes would try to carry out these threats,” he says. “I had to get police protection and, in the end, it was decided it would be too inflammatory for me to go.”
Today, despite having been subjected to the beautiful game’s ugly side, Galloway is still as much in love with his club as ever. “Nothing could put me off Celtic,” he says. “Even poking my eyes out wouldn’t stop me from going. If that happened, I’d still turn up for the atmosphere.”
“Winning the European Cup in 1967. I was 13 years old and watched it at home on a grainy black and white television. At the final whistle I ran out the house and up to the top of the road to celebrate. It was a moment of delirium, really.”
“The defeat against Porto in the UEFA Cup final in 2003. We really felt that was going to be our year. I was there in Seville and the atmosphere was incredible: 80,000 Celtic fans wearing their colours in this beautiful Spanish city in the sun. The anticlimax of losing was a bitter blow.”
“Henrik Larsson was an absolute dream. At £650,000 he’s arguably the best buy anybody, not just Celtic, has ever made. Whenever he scored during his last season, I used to join in with 60,000 other fans singing ‘Won’t you stay a little bit longer’. It was very emotional and I’d get a lump in my throat singing it.”
“I despise Jose Mourinho. Insulting and unbelievably arrogant, I think he’s the antithesis of everything a sportsman should be. His contemptuous treatment of Bryan Robson – a national institution – was the last straw for me. Then I heard him say that Chelsea were the better team against Barcelona when nobody in their right mind could have concluded that. I thought, ‘You are a grade A shit’.”
“Has to be Ronaldinho. Has to be. What a player.”
Stand up if you hate?
“I think Chelsea are totally over rated. If you had a league representing value for money they’d come bottom. I’m not talking about results – they usually grind those out one nothing – it’s their football. Like watching paint dry.”
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