Playing at Paradise (1/5/2019)

OUR ‘BHOY’ JOHNNY WINS AT PARADISE. 

On the evening of Wednesday 1st May, Letterkenny’s own Jonathan Foley – who is a columnist with us here at the Leader – got to realise a lifelong dream when the Gortlee man lined out at the famous stadium in Parkhead to play on the hallowed surface of his beloved Glasgow Celtic. 

On a glorious summer’s evening in the western central belt of Scotland, the Fleet Alliance-sponsored game he played in raised a staggering £15,000 for charity. A chunk of which went right to Donegal Down Syndrome right here in Letterkenny.

How this all came about started back in March when Celtic captain Scott Brown visited the Silver Tassie Hotel for the ‘One Night in Donegal’ event that was jointly organised by the local supporters clubs and the famous Glasgow club themselves. A wonderful spectacle of an occasion that was focused on raising funds for the Celtic FC Foundation and the Ability Counts programme. 

On that night, over 600 fans attended as guests to a wonderful occasion that was full of music, dancing and of course a special Q&A session with Scott Brown. The already entertained crowd got their chance to get in on the act when the raffle and auctions took place. 

One of the items to auctioned off was the chance to play at the stadium and, as you can gather, Jonathan Foley was the highest bidder.

Amid a raptorious applause and cheers from his many fellow supporters and friends in the Tassie that night, Johnny had a dream confirmed as a reality. 

During the build-up prior to the game, he made sure that his charitable donation stayed close to home by requesting it go to helping the great work by the people who run Donegal Down Syndrome. 

This was approved of course and in return, Tony McNamee kindly presented Johnny with a t-shirt that bore their logo (as well as the crest of the Letterkenny No.1 Club Supporters Club) to wear underneath his jersey when playing in the match.

He was also invited by Gina Grant to their premises on the Letterkenny High Road to meet some of the kids along with their parents to see for himself what improvements they were planning to make with his donation.

“It was very humbling to see the great work that Gina and her team do. She showed me the new kitchen facility that was under construction and told me that they also have plans to improve the upstairs bedroom, so that travelling parents will now have a place to rest up before or after a long journey” Foley told.

“I can’t put into words the great work that they do for the kids and, of course, they were nothing short of a joy to meet as well. Some of them coming up for hugs, photographs and high-fives and I was glad to learn that my donation was going to be helping so many great people and so close to home as well” he told.

“Had it not been for the charitable incentive, I don’t think the Celtic Park experience would have been as special. I got my day out, of course, but knowing it was for a greater cause made it all the more enjoyable. Celtic’s foundation is based on charity after all, so it was great to feel that I could help, even if it was only a little bit compared to what the likes of Gina and Tony do on a regular day-to-day basis” he added. 

A few days prior to the match, it was confirmed that he would be playing on the same pitch as some of his heroes. Of which, these included Simon Donnelly and Kris Commons with former title-winning captains Stephen McManus and Tom Boyd pulling the strings on the sideline; the two sides would be adorning the current home and away Celtic strips. 

“As a fan, I’ve fond memories of all these guys. Donnelly and Boyd were both playing in the 1990s when I first got into Celtic. Even after all this time, I love that image of Boyd crying passionately with happiness on the field when the final whistle blew and Celtic won the league title, to mass celebration, in 1998. League success was very rare for the club back then, of course” he told.

“It’s been almost twenty years since Donnelly left Celtic, but I can tell you, he’s still as quick and as athletic as he ever was. In the dressing rooms, it was great to see the jersey with my name on it hanging next to his. I did think he’d be too old to be playing at this stage and I jokingly told him that. Mind you, he cooly reminded me that there was still plenty left in the legs yet” Johnny recalled.

The game itself was scheduled to take place six weeks after the original auction, so after a few visits to the gym and jogs around the pavements and park areas of the town, Foley was off to Glasgow with the boots and shin-guards readied for action.

He would be accompanied on the field by a guest of his choice who was Leitrim-native, Damien Holahan. 

A close friend of Johnny’s who he met during his time living in Edinburgh a few years ago. By his own admission, Damien is much more of a GAA man, but nobody would have guessed as he put in a superb performance at right-back on the night. 

“Damo and myself used to play for the Dunedin Connolly’s GAA team together and back in those days, he was usually a right corner-back and I was the right wing-back, so our roles at Celtic Park were kind of similar to what we used to do. More importantly, he’s been a great friend ever since I first met him and I was so chuffed to have him there to share the day with” Johnny told. 

Before any of this could happen, preparations had to be made of course.

“During the weeks that led to the game, I’d be out trying to keep the fitness up and on some occasions, I’d bump into my fellow Celtic fans around town.. The standout ones are Benny Sweeney and Denis McClafferty. Two Glaswegians living here, for God knows how long, and hits who’ve become great friends of mine throughout the years” Johnny told. 

“In his strong Clydebank twang, Benny would be hauling his DPD deliveries on the Main Street and shouting “You keep up that training, wee man!” and Denis would sometimes toot his car horn and go “Hail Hail, Young Foley!” Those were great moments in their own right and I suppose I felt a bit like I was in a training scene from Rocky II at that stage” he jokingly told.

Johnny would be playing in the away strip with none other than number seven on his back; a number that holds a special place in the hearts of Celtic fans considering it has previously been worn by none other than the likes of club legends such as Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone, Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson. Good company to be in. 

And Johnny was able to recall the reaction from the stands about this news. 

“Michelle Coyle is a neighbour of mine. She’s originally from the Southside of Glasgow and has been spending more time at home in Scotland recently. She and her family kindly came along to the ground to cheer me on that night and I’m told since she comically remarked on social media that “Johnny is wearing the number seven … Nay pressure so, son!” he fondly told. 

When the game got underway, Johnny soon learned what he was up against. In a nutshell, it was lucky that he had done at least some of that training he talked about. On a big pitch where the ball quickly zips along the smoothest of surfaces, the former Ballyraine FC and Bonagee United man had to adjust to the pace quickly. 

“It was certainly no easy game with the standard of a lot of the guys on show. Commons and Donnelly were the ex-professionals of course, but I also learned that one guy was a former under-21 international for France paying and that some of the others still played semi-pro around parts of Scotland. Certainly no walk in the park but immensely enjoyable” he recalled. 

“I had maybe three chances during the game; one went that went over the bar, one hit the side netting and another one which sort of spun awkwardly and although I connected with it, it wasn’t the touch I would’ve liked and the ‘keeper was able to deal with it. No goals for me so, but that won’t trouble me in my memories. I was right-midfield after all, not one of the strikers” Johnny quipped.

No goals but there were some highlights to recall.

“I did enjoy a good battle with Kris Commons and it was great to get a high-five from him as he went off as a second-half substitute. He did try to nutmeg me once during the game, but he failed, so I made sure to give him some playful verbals about that. He took it all in good fun of course and that’s how it’s supposed to be” he recalled.

Now in his mid-thirties and having undergone a series of recurring knee and foot injuries, Johnny is the first to admit that his days as a nippy and troublesome winger may be long behind him. As the game wore on that night, his manager, and 2008 league-winning captain, Stephen McManus, offered him a reprieve to come off, but in Foley’s eyes, this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. 

“My right leg muscles was giving me the same bother that it often does and McManus asked me if I would come off and rest it. I was in a bit of pain, nothing too serious, but reluctant to go. 

He told me there was only three minutes left but I asked if I could stilI stay on. I’d come a long way and just wanted to be on the pitch when the final whistle blew but I also didn’t want the guilt of the incoming substitute not getting back on. For a brief moment, I was very torn, physically and emotionally you might say” Johnny recounted.

“Thankfully Damien intervened and offered to go off instead. He was struggling with a back problem himself so he was happy to get the rest; it meant the other lad got a few extra minutes and I got to stay on.

Considering, I was limping a fair bit, I made sure to thank both Damien and Stephen for that after the game. I’d never usually overrule a coach but this was different. They understood and appreciated how long I’d waited for a day like this to happen.

The final whistle blew soon after and hugs were shared and photos taken. And of course I made sure to pop up to the stands where Michelle and her family were sitting – in the seats usually reserved for Billy Connolly and Rod Stewart no less – to thank them for coming. Overall, it’s definitely an experience that I’ll cherish forever” he concluded. 

The game itself was a tense affair for long periods that ended up with two late goals for the ‘away’ side to earn a hard-fought 4-2 win for Johnny’s team. With that, this lifelong supporter can now proudly say that he played in a winning side at Celtic Park. 

A famous line from one of the club’s songs states that they have ‘dreams and songs to sing’ and that’s just what Jonathan Foley had that evening. 

On this occasion, however, those dreams became a reality. We at the Leader would like to congratulate our colleague and, above all else our friend, for living his dream and for helping such a great cause in the process. 

Hail, Hail Johnny!

‘Celtic Minded 5: Donegal.’

Celtic Football Club and the emotional and spiritual connection to County Donegal.

By Jonathan Foley

As modern changes have taken a firm grasp of football, it’s perhaps been no major surprise to see so many of the world’s most famous and well-known clubs cash in on spreading their name to more global markets. And yet, while Celtic Football Club are no exception to this trend, they still exist dearly in the hearts and minds of their support who are from, or at least connected to, the county of Donegal.

Even with the array of choices on people for ways to spend their disposable income nowadays, a huge quantity of them are still regularly seen boarding supporters buses in the likes of Dungloe, Gweedore, Gortahork, The Rosses and Letterkenny every morning a match day comes around. A regular flocking exodus to Glasgow that has stood the test of time. Groups of men, women and children still make these day-trip or weekend journeys to Celtic Park – and sometimes away games as well. In doing so, this generates a feeling that they are not merely going to support a football team – but that they are carrying a sense of tradition of local migrancy with them; something that has gone for many generations before them.

It’s been heartening for the fans to see the likes of Cloughglass-native, Packie Bonner, and Kilmacrennan-born, Patsy Gallacher, become club heroes and legends in their own right. In addition, Donegal’s historical links to the west of Scotland, which are greatly influenced by socio-economic as well as cultural factors, has seen such Scottish-born players of Donegal descent, as Jimmy McGrory, Charlie Gallagher and Aiden McGeady become further testament to how strong that bond has been. Not forgetting of course that, Donegal’s own All-Ireland and three-time Ulster Championship winning manager, Jim McGuinness (Glenties) was employed by the club both during and after what is generally perceived as the celebrated part of his career so far.  

County Donegal’s link to Scottish west central belt and south west dates back at least a half-century before the club even played their first game in May 1888. Seasonal harvesting in parts of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire were a common means of survival for the ‘tattie-hoakers’ as lasting employment in the county at this time was virtually non-existent. Huddled sleeping in crowded cowsheds and harsh climates had to be endured for months at a time just to raise a few bob to take back to the family at home: survival was the name of the game for many in one of Ireland’s economically poorest counties. The development of Britain’s industrial age coincided in time with the tragedy of An Gorta Mór and this resulted in a more forceful migration of the financially poorer-Irish, with a huge quantity from Donegal, choosing Glasgow as their new home.

Living in the most deplorable of conditions in and around Glasgow and Lanarkshire, etching our meagre existences from any work to be found Irish immigrants to Scotland were rejected, alienated and discriminated against.  Even now, Donegal people can often be heard to recite that the surroundings their predecessors found themselves in were not that much better than those that they’d fled from in their homeland. For many, Celtic FC became a wonderful form of solace. The steady and notable rise of leisure time and recreation, not forgetting the attractive style of football that Celtic become renowned for playing, meant that Brother Walfrid’s promise to raise funds for the poor of the East End parishes could be fulfilled. Although hardships still remained, the club could – and perhaps should – be held responsible for saving people’s lives. A patch of Donegal turf from a rural field in Annagry was ceremoniously laid on the playing surface in 1892 by the Irish National League’s founder, Michael Davitt, who then became an honorary patron of the club. All that, along with the colour of the team’s jerseys, the Irish flag flying above the stand and the general sense of community that it created, Celtic became an intricate part of the lives of so many people.

Further on into the twentieth century, the connections remained and in some cases, strengthened. The development of the Clyde tunnels in the early 1960s drew a new generation of migrants across the Straits of Moyle; often working in unsafe and dangerous conditions. But, like those who preceded them, they were carrying a sense of family legacy and of course, many of them keeping their chins up by looking forward to going to see Celtic on a Saturday.

As education become more accessible towards the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium, Donegal’s population grew tremendously in both skilled-labour and academia. Scotland’s no-tuition-fee system and its geographical closeness to the northwest of Ireland has often saw young and highly-driven workers and scholars happily choose Scotland over places like Dublin or London. Partly because such cities demanded high costs, were seen by many as further away. However, as many have stated, their sense of linkage to Celtic was also a huge pull-factor for pulling them towards Scotland. Celtic in particular, has done so much for the financial, spiritual and the emotional wellbeing of so many Donegal natives and to their descendants as well. Not only supporters’ buses or the sheer volume of flights out of Carrickfinn prove this but the fact that so many great stories that can be told of people travelling over and back between the two places for holidays or work, or whatever, can still be heard by those who make the journey today. Celtic’s cohesive influence on charity is also witnessed every year now by the annual ‘Huddle Up Errigal’ event, whereby supporters pull on their Celtic colours and brave the incline of the county’s tallest mountain so as to raise vital funds for Donegal Down Syndrome. A wonderful kaleidoscope of club colours is there for all to see when this weekend comes around.

In conclusion, from the rural and green surroundings of Donegal’s land and coast to the urbanised and bustling city street lights of Glasgow, Celtic Football Club has been at the core of this connection for a very long time. For many people, Celtic is of course a representation of Ireland abroad, a vehicle for the non-Irish born Irish in Scotland and elsewhere around the globe, and in particular, for many from Ireland most northerly county, Donegal.

DENMARK’S THE SPOT (2020)

Originally written in February 2020

Since our last edition of the Leader, I got back on the trail after a bit of a hiatus from traveling in 2019. It wasn’t Asia, Africa or South America this time. Instead it was somewhat closer to home with a venture to Copenhagen. 

By Jonathan Foley 

Arrival in the Danish capital was pretty late in the evening; about 11pm local time and although it was rather chilly and a bit damp, it was still nicer than the constant hailstones and snowfall we were getting here at home. 

With Celtic FC being in town for a Europa League game with the local side, there was a great buzz and excitement in the air the night before the game.

Copenhagen.

There’s always a great sense of comradery amongst the Hoops supporters. Being a lifelong fan myself, it was easy to blend in and quickly make friends with others who’d made the journey. 

The only major landmark I saw that night was the famous Tivoli Gardens. Built in 1873,  it’s the world’s second oldest theme park and was said to have been the inspiration behind the creation of Disneyland. 

Granted, it looks just okay during the day, but with Scandinavia having long periods of darkness at this time of year, the park lights up beautifully and quite romantically later in the evening.

The next day was all about football. I was fortunate enough to have a ticket but because it was in the Copenhagen section of the ground, I made sure to have the jersey well covered up and the scarf hidden away in the jacket pocket. 

Upon arrival at the stadium, the Telia Parken, a steward did stop me and enquired about who I supported. I must not look very Danish! And it was here where I feared the worst. 

He was great though and allowed me entrance to the ground with no real hassle. He just advised me to not celebrate too much if and when Celtic scored to which I politely obliged. Sort of. 

Within the stadium, the atmosphere from both sets of supporters was cracking. Copenhagen fans create an electrifying buzz with flashing disco lights, huge banners and pyrotechnics. 

On a deeper level though, there are also very mild. They didn’t seem to mind that some Celtic fans were taking seats in their parts of the stand and their banter was still very respectful and polite. Nothing callous or crass at all.

FC Copenhagen v Celtic.

My own abiding memory was sitting beside a delightful looking blonde Danish lass. She seemed to enjoy my Irish wit and happily shared her popcorn with me. Although her older brother in the next seat over seemed less impressed. 

The game itself ended in a 1-1 draw and any promises I made to the steward about not ‘over-celebrating’ became null and avoid. This was when myself and an elderly but energetic Celtic fan joined in the sing-alongs and when we both leapt for joy as our keeper dramatically saved a late penalty. 

The next day though was much more about taking in the city as a whole. With it being wonderfully clean and safe, it was a joy to just simply dander around and explore in my own time. A luxury I enjoy most when traveling. 

On a stroll down by the famous Nyhavn Harbour, I took in the sights, sounds and colours of the many boats and decorative apartment buildings and cafes. This was where I just so happened to bump into a guy from Donegal Town.

His name escapes him just now, but he’d spotted my Donegal wooly hat amongst the crowds on the pier and came over to say hello. He’s been living there for 16 years so was keen to offer me some tips on where to go and what to see.

Nyhavan

As we bade farewell, I made my way out to the statue of the Little Mermaid. People often say it’s way too far out, but it’s not really. Granted, it’s not a huge statue but still very nice to see all the same.

Ariel was far fitter looking.

Like many people, my main knowledge of the mermaid’s legend came from the family-friendly Disney movie with Ariel and Sebastian singing ‘Under the Sea.’ The real mythology was a tad darker however. 

The original narrative was written by Copenhagen-native Hans Christian Anderson as a rather grim fairytale. Like the kids movie, it did involve a mermaid wishing to find her prince on the land, but the real story was a lot more graphic about the physical and emotional pain and suffering she went through when on land.

It was interesting to learn about how there were so many huge alterations made to the story so as to suit it for a more family-orientated audience three centuries later. I won’t spoil these differences for you though. Check them out online. 

Lastly, it was off to Freetown Christiania. A sort of hippie-commune of squatters where people live by their own laws and where the aroma of certain green herbs would make you wanna go home and put your Bob Marley records on.

Freetown Christiana.

Photos are strictly prohibited inside the village however, but it was interesting to see their artwork and way of life. Not only had they cafes, bars, a stage for live music but also a school for the children. 

Thinking closer to home, the graffiti messages drew a parallel with the ‘Free Derry’ corner for me and upon departing, a huge sign reads ‘You Are Now Entering the EU!’ Maybe it was like their own idea of ‘Dexit’ that was going on.