SCOTLAND: With a long storied history that is the envy of most, Glasgow Celtic remains one of world football’s most enduring symbols with a passionate fan base to be found all across the world, including Australia. It is also, of course, the club that is home to Socceroos stars, Tom Rogic and Daniel Arzani. But now, Celtic finds itself in the midst of explosive revelations the club covered up for and enabled child sex offenders for decades, with even legendary manager Jock Stein playing a part in not calling police despite the abuse of dozens of young boys.
Former Glasgow resident and our True Crime News Weekly correspondent, Gary Johnston, takes a look at the costs borne by society when an institution decides to defend its reputation and hierarchy rather than do the right thing.
“Sure it’s a grand old team to play for, Sure it’s a grand old team bedad, When you read its history, It’s enough to make your heart grow sad.”
So goes ‘The Celtic Song’, the anthem of the Scottish football team who, as well as being league victors in their home country on no less than forty- nine occasions, were also the first British club to win the European Cup, the prestigious trophy now known as the Champions League.
1967 was the year when, under the direction of legendary team manager, John ‘Jock’ Stein, the so-called Lisbon Lions, a squad whose members all originated from within 30 miles of the city of Glasgow, comprehensively defeated the might of defensively minded Italian giants Inter Milan in the May sunshine of Portugal’s famed Estádio Nacional.
Simpson, Craig, Gemmell. Murdoch, McNeill Clarke. Johnstone, Wallace, Chalmers, Auld and Lennox; for fans, the names are as sacred as a prayer. An incantation. A mantra. A holy chant, a blessed memory.
Founded in 1888 by Catholic Marist Brother Walfrid with the purpose of alleviating poverty in the immigrant Irish population in the city’s spectacularly deprived East End, Glasgow Celtic have gone to become one of, not only the most successful, but also the best supported clubs in the world. From the USA to Australia the Celtic diaspora is immense, with, for example, the Sydney Celtic Supporters Club boasting a membership far eclipsing that of both local A-League teams combined.
The Celtic story is a tale of triumph over adversity, a lesson in how individuals from humble origins can victoriously overcome inequality, and thus encourage hope, respect and aspiration.
Behind the noble scenes of ambition, glamour and achievement however, a darker Celtic history has recently emerged, which, like the team song suggests, not only induces sadness but also anger, bitterness and destruction in those affected.
It’s a grim tale, but one that bears telling, given that it exposes the huge price that is often exacted on young people – and their parents – determined to succeed in the lucrative world-wide sporting arena.
The Celtic Boys Club was started in 1966 as a means of identifying young footballing talent who could then be inculcated in what was known as the ‘Celtic way’, a style of play which emphasised creativity and natural flair.
Although the link between the Boys Club and the senior team was informal, it wasn’t long before club officials recognised the benefits and young emergent players soon became a familiar presence at both the stadium and the training ground, undertaking menial tasks such as sweeping the terracing, cleaning the toilets and generally fulfilling the duties of apprentice footballers.
For the youngsters, many of whom came from underprivileged backgrounds, it was a dream come true: rubbing shoulders with their heroes, with a view to eventually donning the famous green and white hooped shirts themselves. As such, the Boy’s Club coaches could take their pick, every young player desperately keen to be given the chance to shine.
Circumstance. Patronage. Manipulation.
In an ideal world, the selection process would have been based on ability and aptitude.
Unfortunately, Celtic Boys Club did not operate in an ideal world.
* * * * *
James Torbett was his name. An all powerful, unilaterally elected club manager, Torbett, an unmarried football aspirant, suddenly had the capacity to make or break young footballer’s careers, an opportunity he was determined not to spurn.
What began as whispers in the dressing rooms soon heightened to tacit acknowledgment. Torbett was sexually abusing young players by promising he could make them stars. And those boys believed him because he was the founder of the Celtic Boys Club.
By gratuitously pin-pointing the most vulnerable, isolated or desperate, inviting them to his council flat and plying them with alcohol, Torbett’s campaign of molestation was utterly transparent and manifest.
But what could the boys do? Desperate to develop a career as a footballer, young, naive and helpless, they were as lambs to the slaughter.
Alan Brazil, later to become a Scotland International as well as a successful striker at Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Ipswich Town, was one of the victims.
In his 2007 autobiography, Brazil said he was preyed on as a 13-year-old.
“He found me on the sofa on my own in the lounge. I was bored and wanted to go home. He sat much closer than was comfortable, and without warning put his hand between my legs. I froze,” Brazil recalled decades after the incident.
“He started kissing my head and trying to touch the outside of my trousers, but I was wriggling away from him. I remember his horrible swollen face next to mine. He was smiling. He thought this was fun. I was frightened and very confused.”
Eventually, when the stories of Torbett’s behaviour become too explicit to tolerate, the Celtic management took some sort of action.
Jock Stein, the senior coach, literally kicked the Boys Club manager out of the club, though in an undertaking designed, it’s believed, to protect the ‘good name’ of Celtic, at no time was there any consideration of police involvement.
Thus Torbett slunk off, only to re-emerge as Boys Club manager some years later, after Stein had moved on, with the decision to keep the matter in-house in order to protect the clubs good standing having disastrous consequences; Torbett was once again at liberty to continue his squalid practices.
No one knows just how many young players fell prey to Torbett’s offending. When he eventually appeared at Glasgow Sheriff Court on 5 November 2018 he was convicted on five separate counts of sexually abusing children, though it is generally understood the true number of his victims is in the hundreds.
Torbett was sentenced to six years in prison.
Unfortunately, his situation was not isolated.
In 2017, Frank Cairney – another former Celtic Boys Club coach and manager – was charged with historical sexual offences. Just last month, he was subsequently found guilty of nine charges of sexually abusing young footballers. Cairney, now aged 83, is due to be sentenced in a matter of weeks.
Supporters of Celtic’s bitter rival, Glasgow Rangers, have been quick to make capital about the situation, with self-righteous chants and internet stories and memes being circulated on a daily basis, though the fact is, they really have no right to crow.
Harry Dunn, a Rangers football scout in the 1980’s, was facing claims of sexual assault of a number of youth players in the 1980’s, with an ongoing police investigation only dropped after Dunn’s subsequent death.
Most shockingly of all, any claims of compensation from Dunn’s putative victims have been dismissed by the club, whose lawyers have claimed that after Rangers were placed in liquidation in 2012, any alleged assault in the 1980’s would have taken place when Rangers were owned by a different company and that therefore the duty of care does not lay with the current owners.
TRUE OPINION: Beautiful game, horrible corruption
This legal slight-of-hand mirrors the response of Celtic Football Club to compensation claims arising from Torbett and Cairney’s offending; Celtic Boy’s Club, lawyers claim, was a separate entity, any connection with the senior club was entirely informal and as a result, Celtic FC had and subsequently has, absolutely no liability.
Disgraceful, you might think. But what does this mean for us, here in Australia?
It would be naive in the extreme to believe that young men and women – and their parents – identified as potential talent by the numerous sporting codes in this country could not fall prey to a similar fate.
It is to be hoped that if such a scandal as that experienced in Scotland is replicated here, then the police and relevant authorities will act in an appropriate manner, ideally before any lasting damage is perpetrated.
Given the potential rewards however, and the desperation to succeed, it would be no surprise if manipulative, criminal behaviour existed in the margins of youth sport in this country.
We can merely, but sincerely, hope not.
Feature Image: Brian Hargadon / Flicker