The news that Maguires pub in Leeds is due to close shortly isn’t going to send shock waves around the football world – it’s a standard Irish boozer on the outskirts of the city centre. But, to Celtic fans based in the city the pub served another important purpose as the home of Leeds Celtic Supporters Club (also known as Wim the Tim CSC, in honour of title winning coach Wim Jansen). I only know this because my best friend at University was a member and spent half his waking hours there (probably a few sleeping hours too), and it was with Wim the Tim that I ticked off an important football pilgrimage back in 2001 – a trip to Celtic Park. So, rather like a stranger turning up to give a speech at a funeral, this is my minor contribution to the history of the old pub (and Wim the Tim during its residence there).
It’s fair to say I was a little apprehensive on the morning of my trip. I assumed everyone who attended football at either of Glasgow’s Old Firm clubs was a sectarian nut job, and the streets would be teeming with Begbies. But, in spite of my prejudices, as a football fan I was drawn to the fact that 60,000 Celtic fans turned out every other week to watch their team play in one of the most derided leagues in Europe, which is just mental.
Our bus departed from Maguires at 7.30am on Saturday morning – an offensively early start for a home fixture. My travelling companions were a mixture of Irish and Scottish Celtic fans, along with a few dour Yorkshiremen of Irish descent for whom my cultural reference point was Mick McCarthy. A coach full of Mick McCarthys – this thought did not put me at ease. I felt very aware that I was a day tripping student in a tight knit group.
Thankfully, there were no obviously Begbie-esque characters, but one member of the group deserves a special mention. His physical presence made him impossible to go unnoticed; a great, hulking Glaswegian called Bruce who looked seven feet tall, must have weighed about 20 stone, and had an enormous bald head. On reflection he didn’t actually say or do anything particularly menacing, but I decided I might be wasting my time trying to ingratiate myself with Bruce, so stayed out of his way.
Upon arrival in Glasgow we headed straight to the pub. Not just any pub, mind, it was the Brazen Head, which is located in the Gorbals - once one of Glasgow’s most notorious slums, with a pretty terrifying history.
That was a long time ago, but the pub itself has suffered from bit of an image problem (see ‘The Times: Inside the Gorbals Hardest Pub’) thanks to its reputation for favouring the cause of militant Irish nationalism. To be frank, it was not the kind of establishment I imagined a student from the Home Counties would be particularly welcome. Once inside it seemed much like any other football pub – decorated by a few flags and scarves and thick with smoke (this was 2001; now it would smell of stale beer and body odour). However, I hadn’t previously been to a match day pub that featured its own house band. The crowd roared its approval as the pub’s regular entertainers, Charlie and the Bhoys, took to the stage and began to belt out their full repertoire of rebel songs. I was now hemmed into a seething mass singing about Britain’s tyranny towards Ireland. Booze, please.
I was so concerned at being marked down as an outsider (my commuter belt accent felt like a neon sign flashing OUTSIDER above my head) that I attempted ordering a round of drinks without giving myself away, but ended up mumbling something incomprehensible and wildly gesticulating towards the beer pumps. I eventually blurted out “four pints of Guinness”, but in my head I was shouting “I DON’T BELONG HERE!”.
Thankfully, by the time the band finished I had finally started to relax and even managed to chat to someone other than my friend (more trauma was to follow when I had to use the toilet – but we won’t go there). I’d heard some of the songs before and they didn’t bother me a great deal. My anxiety had been based more on my own perceptions of the city being full of violent hard cases than the politics of some Celtic fans, who were mostly good humoured. I’ve shared pubs with England fans singing ‘no surrender to the IRA’ on several occasions, and on balance I’d have to say Charlie and Bhoys’ output showed a little more artistic flair.
I’m not going to launch into a discussion on sectarian politics, and it would be wrong to present this experience as the ritual of all Celtic fans. There were 60,000 at Celtic Park that day. Clearly the majority weren’t in the Brazen Head (although it felt like they were at one point). But, the atmosphere in the pub was, rightly or wrongly, like nothing else I’d experienced before a football match.
Back to the day, and the consumption of liquid refreshments continued at a steady pace. Of course, alcohol is by no means unique to football in Scotland, but Buckfast certainly is. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Buckfast is a fortified wine brewed by monks at the Buckfast Abbey in Devon. It tastes a bit like children’s cough medicine mixed with Mad Dog 20/20, and we polished off a bottle on the way to Parkhead.
We finally got to the stadium at around 3.15pm (it was a 3pm kick off, but to my surprise no one cared by this point. After all, it was only ten hour round trip - why bother rushing to the ground?). A packed Celtic Park is an impressive sight, no doubt about that, and it was a full house, even for a routine fixture against Dundee United. Celtic won 2-1, but it wasn’t a closely fought match. This was Celtic in their pomp. Players like Larsson, Sutton, Lennon, Lambert and Petrov were far too good for their opponents. Celtic’s Paul Lambert put one in his own net when Dundee had barely mustered a shot in the whole game – maybe he was just trying to liven things up a bit. The only slight disappointment of the day was the atmosphere in Celtic Park, which was a little flat; an unfortunate side effect of successful teams that carry the expectation of victory into every game. That said, Celtic Park was always likely to feel a bit tame compared to the raucousness of the Brazen Head.
After Celtic’s inevitable victory was complete we made our way back to the bus, stopping to pick up some beers for the return journey to Leeds – also a memorable experience. The off license had chicken wire all the way around the counter, so you couldn’t touch anything until you had paid for it. There were three items on sale: cans of Miller; whiskey (we’re not talking rare single malts here); and the dreaded Buckfast. Obviously, it took me a while to choose from such a range of options, but having done so I presented my money through a small hatch in the wire, and my cans of Miller were passed to me. This is not how transactions take place in Hertfordshire, I can tell you.
There was a bit more singing on the bus back to Leeds, and I was certainly feeling a lot more relaxed than I had been on the Northern leg of the journey. Although I don’t envy anyone spending ten hours on a bus whenever they want to see their team, a part of me was a bit jealous of the Wim the Tim members. I have a small group of friends to go to games with, but if they can’t make it, I’m on my own. If you’re part of a larger group you know you’ll always have company, and they clearly enjoyed their time together.
They even turned watching a game on TV into an away day. Before the days of saturation TV coverage and internet streaming, there were some Celtic games that were only available on Scottish TV, so the Leeds CSC would charter a bus to take them to a pub in Gretna to watch it.
The sad thing is groups such as Wim the Tim CSC are in decline. Many CSCs have closed and the logical conclusion is that TV has undermined their purpose. Celtic’s attendances are still remarkable, but it surely raises questions of the impact to the identity of the club if this trend continues. Celtic has a nationwide and International fan base. Its cultural significance among football fans of Irish-descent means it is likely to endure for some time, but there is a worry that the gradual fall off in these supporters groups could indicate the declining status of this famous old club.
By the time our bus pulled up outside Maguires I was already talking about making another trip, but I’ve yet to make it back. Farewell to Maguires then; I barely knew the place, but it gave me a day I’ll never forget. The wake will be held after the Scottish League Cup final, then the doors will be locked for good.