They’d been told to keep off the grass, but Alec couldn’t resist two quick steps from the ash track and onto the park. There was no-one looking, the control room still empty of match commander and retinue, the stadium officials more concerned with the operation of the floodlights and the manning of turnstiles. Fitzpatrick and the Inspector had their backs turned, mulling over the operational order before the arrival of a local Chief Inspector who’d brief them on their match duties. His crime would go undetected.
He’d been on duty at Celtic Park before, but this was a European night and he took childish pleasure in knowing he’d stepped onto the hallowed turf, worries of being caught outweighed by the minor date with destiny that represented his incursion onto the playing field of legends. He wasn’t a huge Celtic fan, he’d only gone to a handful of games, but an interest in their success was as much a part of his upbringing as Sunday Mass and fish on a Friday. A childhood dominated by street games where every boy was Dixie Deans, Jimmy Johnstone, or Kenny Dalgleish, had left it’s traces and though he knew his small transgression meant little in the overall scheme of things he’d convinced himself this would be worth retelling someday.
Someone coughed. Alec looked up to see the Chief Inspector emerge from the players tunnel and he slipped back just as Fitzpatrick turned to see a perfectly aligned unit of officers in two rows of ten. Alec gave silent thanks to the anonymous lookout.
The Chief Inspector, a miserable old bastard, looked up and down the contingent as if they were a collective bag of shite before giving a curt address that did nothing to motivate and everything to hammer home that this was a televised game. As track detail they’d be in the spotlight and only the highest standards would do. There’d be no opportunity to watch the game as they would have their ‘eyes on the crowd and nothing else’. The Chief Inspector addressed them as a penal battalion sent as a punishment and gave the impression that this assignment had been handed to the worst possible outfit.
Sergeant Fitzpatrick read out the rest of the match detail under the sour gaze of the Chief Inspector. Alec gazed up into the brightly lit vault of the main stand as their duties were read out in monotone. A slow walk around the trackside, twenty feet apart, eyes on the crowd. Clockwise first half, anti-clockwise for the second. It would be a game of two halves right enough. If things went pear-shaped on the terraces there was to be no leaping into the fray. No keystone cop pursuits across the park should there be any incursions by supporters. Stop and face the crowd when a goal is scored, move off when the excitement dies down. And that was that. Just before half time they’d be relieved for half an hour and at full time they’d follow the fans out onto London Road where they’d be stood down. Alec allowed himself a small feeling of happiness. Easy overtime and despite the operational order, there would be opportunities to sneak glimpses of the game, Chief Inspector be dammed.
As it happened it wasn’t much of a game. There was too much riding on it and a packed stadium that began in full voice became quieter as the match wore on. The opposition, a squad of tall Teutonic titans who marched onto the park broad shouldered, blonde haired and blue eyed, looked as if they’d been the product of a government led genetic experiment, in stark contrast to the skinny young men of average height and fashionable haircuts that walked onto the park beside them. Some could’ve done with a good feed.
Their circumnavigation of the track started as the game kicked off. Alec maintained the same metronomic pace as Sandy twenty yards in front of him and felt acutely self conscious until he realised that no one was interested in him. He was simply an annoyance to those in the first couple of rows whose view of the game he temporarily impeded as he walked past.
The stadium looked different from the trackside. Alec was struck by the absence of uniformity around the park, the stand and terraces a jumble of odd shapes thrown together around a rectangle of grass. Behind the goals the west and east terraces rose into darkness, their steep slopes protected by dank grey corrugated roofing of the type found on dilapidated grounds the length and breadth of the country; museum pieces compared to the brightly lit main stand and its orderly ranks of green plastic seating. The stand was the epitome of civilised spectator comfort compared to the ‘Jungle’ opposite, the one part of his slow lap that Alec was wary of. There was something animal about the contents of that overgrown shed that unnerved him. It was not simply the guarantee of an Irish republican song, abusive chant, or the flight of a piss filled Eldorado bottle, it was the dark latent intent buried somewhere within the ranks of the tens of thousands who’d forced their way in before the gates closed. An overpopulated human pen, crowbarred in until the front rows were squeezed against the trackside security fence, a compression of pale faces who moved as one, sang as one and like blades of grass on a windswept field, swayed back and forth and side to side. It was a cold night and the accumulation of compressed body heat had quickly reached critical mass, radiating outwards onto the running track bringing with it the smell of stale sweat and chips. Every song, chant or chorus produced a vast cloud of vapour, a volcanic plume that gathered under the corrugated roof and billowed upwards, caught in perfect silhouette by the massive floodlights. It was as if the Jungle produced it’s own weather system and Alec wondered if it would condense in the upper atmosphere and rain as an unholy trinity of whisky, beer and fortified wine.
It was a similar story in the end terraces, human sardines squeezed tier upon tier into the vaulted gods. Each of the end sections held twenty thousand, but there were many more on those dark terraces and the serried ranks of humanity rose into the gloom until they merged into one solid mass and disappeared into the blackness. Alec continued his perambulation, sensing the crowd more than seeing them.
The first half was dull and it was a relief when the half-time contingent took their place. Alec huddled with the others in the gap between the stand and east terraces, sipping bovril while the others conducted their match analysis. ‘Couldnae score in a barrel of fannies’ seemed to be the consensus. The view was tinged with red, white and blue but it was hard to escape the truth of it. He’d volunteered primarily for the overtime, but hoped to play witness to one those famed European nights he’d heard pals talking about. It didn’t seem likely tonight.
After the second half resumed Alec and the shift returned to the walk around the track. The game became a tense scrappy affair, Celtic hunting for whatever custody they could get of the ball, the visitors ascendant, stroking it about with calm authority. There were close shaves and goal line clearances, communal cries of frustration and low level groans that sounded like a large beast being prodded with a sharp stick. There was the occasional outbreak of singing, but with little on the pitch to sustain it the songs petered out, replaced by an act of solemn witness to a forgone conclusion.
Alec kept track of the game by the odd glance at the pitch and the expressions and curses of those he passed. Occasionally, when he rounded the corner flags, he caught sight of the cops behind him. Sandy, Charlie, Harry and Fitzpatrick whose face was set in the scowl he always wore in the presence of the great unwashed.
A glance at his watch. Five minutes to go. Alec looked up into the terraces. Every man, woman and child wore the same look of rapt concentration, each face tracking the movement of the ball, heads thrown up or away when a promising move petered out, each alone in their desires and fears, but each hoping for the same thing, that exquisite moment when the only thing that mattered in the whole of creation struck the back of a large nylon net. Alec felt the tension rise as the clock ticked down, the hope eternal that somewhere, somehow, someone on the park in green and white would do something unexpected and bring that moment of release.
As the minutes ebbed away Alec was drawn more and more to the players on the park, though his views were snatched and furtive. The Germans, content with a draw and confident in their physical attributes had retreated into their own half and put up a wall. It had nil-nil written all over it.
It was as he passed the main stand where it joined the west terracing that he felt it. Up in the vast gloom thousands had leaned forward in a silent but palpable reaching out of heart and minds. It caused Alec to look to the pitch, aware that something was unfolding and that he too should see it. He turned as the Celtic player swept past on the touch line and heard the grunt as the winger planted one foot and swung the other, the thump of boot on leather, the intake of air around the stadium as the ball fell to earth, silence as the target of the cross, head tucked down, body bent, foot sweeping forward, drove his laces through the ball and sent it travelling on a linear trajectory through a ruck of players and into the back of the net.
There was a split second between the bulge and the shock wave, the joyous exaltation of sixty thousand people, a physical phenomenon that caught Alec unawares and carried him aloft on a surge of emotion. He was nowhere, suspended in a parallel universe, no longer a cop, no longer anything and when he came to he was facing the dancing, hugging chaos on the terraces with both his arms in the air and shouting ‘Yes!’
In shock he threw his hands down. Before him, around him, above him, a vast sea of people remained in the throws of religious ecstasy. Alec’s eyes swept the first three rows, over the people whose faces he could make out as individual human beings and with a sense of relief that bordered on gratitude saw that no-one was looking at him. No-one laughed at the cop who’d got carried away and celebrated the goal just as they had. No pointed fingers, no mocking chants of ‘he’s one of us’. Heart in mouth, cursing his stupidity, he faced the crowd as instructed.
The shift began to walk again and Alec followed suit. Maybe he’d got away with it. They’d all stopped to face the crowd after all. Perhaps they’d missed his faux pas. Alec sneaked a look behind, hoping to find some form of confirmation, but there was Sandy, his hand pointing towards him as if to say, ‘I saw you’.
Alec groaned inwardly. The cat was surely out the bag, his coy silences come back to haunt him. He cursed himself upside down and inside out for the remainder of the game, til the final whistle blew and they filed out into the cool air of an early winter night. It was a miserable and withdrawn young cop who joined his colleagues at the rendezvous on London Road and stared miserably at the squalid Springfield tenements as the Inspector conducted a roll-call, all the while waiting for condemnation and humiliation. But none came. Not a word. Alec plucked up the courage to scan the faces of the cops around him. Nobody met his gaze or indicated in any way what they thought, or what they knew. Sandy looked like he always did, clinically bored.
Fitzpatrick bade them a good night and they dispersed to make their individual journeys home. On the walk back to his car, Alec found himself in the company of Ronnie who, if he knew anything, wasn’t letting on. Alec allowed himself a small delusion that Sandy had simply reminded him to keep his eyes forward. That it had nothing to do with the goal celebration and that miracle of miracles, in front of a crowd of sixty thousand, he’d gotten away with it after all.
It was a hope that was to be the subject of a death by a thousand cuts in the weeks to follow.
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