Date: 13th April 2020 at 4:07pm
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If absence makes the heart grow fonder then the return of football will surely be embraced like a long lost lover.

The first game at a full Celtic Park may resemble the scenes that greeted the Lisbon Lions on their return in 1967, if only for the relief of getting out of the house.

With the current situation preventing any footballing visits, the only place where it can continue to be enjoyed – except, bizarrely, Belarus – is in our memories.

And so the free time which has been forced on us turned my thoughts to stadiums visited whilst following Celtic.

In my case, that has involved going watching the Hoops in 45 different grounds, spanning seven different countries.

There are so many different memories doing this, whether at Celtic Park, away from home in Scotland or elsewhere in Europe.

In the first of a three part series, this piece considers my Celtic Park memories. Hopefully it might even spark your own, until the real thing can once again be appreciated.

Earliest memories

My first visits to see Celtic took place in the early 1980s.

It’s fair to say that everything about the ground now is utterly transformed from those initial games.

The pre-match experience of my youth is one that is no longer possible.

If arriving early enough then before each game I would stand with my Dad on Kerrydale Street, next to the side gate which led to the old school.

This was where the players would park their cars, before walking up to the ground.

There are countless photos – mainly blurred – and programmes in my house which are evidence to the Celtic teams of the 1980s and early 1990s, and their terrible, often illegible handwriting.

When the time came to enter the ground, it was a short walk to the main stand, where we always went during my early supporting years.

Sitting in the main stand afforded a great view – but also a growing allure with what might be found elsewhere in the stadium.

A particularly terrible deluge of rain one Saturday would turn this into a permanent experience rather than just a fascination.

The Jungle, and the rest

One day, towards the end of the 1980s, Celtic played at home and the heavens themselves seemed to have opened.

The rain battered down and the flood running along Kerrydale Street seemed to be trying to rival the Clyde.

My Dad and I stood in a huge queue to get into the main stand, but we weren’t the only ones trying that, clearly in an attempt to escape the worst of the rain.

On reaching the front of the queue a sign went up saying “Full”.

So instead around the ground we walked for what would be my first visit to the Jungle.

The game itself has long left my memory – and to be honest so has that specific Jungle experience itself – but it established that there would be no return to the main stand.

From then on games could be viewed from the Celtic end, the Jungle or even the Rangers end, depending on the game, and often ticket availability.

In fact it would almost 25 years before I would again see a game from the main stand whilst with my Dad.

The 1989 return leg versus Partisan Belgrade is the game which most lingers in my mind.

Standing at the very front of the Celtic end, next to the main stand side corner flag, a ten year old me couldn’t comprehend what was happening (having no understanding of the away goals rule).

In particular, why was my Dad so animatedly shouting at Anton Rogan not to run to take throw-in? After all, surely at 5-3 to Celtic the game was done…

There was other enjoyment too, although to be honest, less exciting times as well.

My first season ticket took me into the Jungle for the 1992-93 season, with entry into second year at high school deeming me old enough for this.

Most of that season involved standing at whichever end Celtic were shooting towards in the first half, before moving to the other side at half time.

Games were often drab. One that has always stuck in my head was a dull midweek encounter with Hearts which was only enlivened by a late Andy Payton winner.

And then the experience changed further when seats were added to the Jungle, in some vain attempt to pretend the old ground was ever going to be an all-seater stadium.

No more moving at half time, although there would be a move across town to Hampden for a year whilst everything at Celtic Park was transferred by a small Canadian with a bunnet.

From graveyard to Paradise

The first Celtic Park was built just to the north of the current site.

When the move to the modern location was originally made – in the 1890s – it was said to be like moving “from graveyard to Paradise”.

The 1995 rebuilding had echoes of this.

Whilst the memories and Jungle roar are fondly recalled by those who were there, the gulf between old and new is vast.

Celtic Park now – complete with its disco lights – is a European-wide phenomenon, lauded by some of the finest players to have graced the game.

And of course the community in which Celtic Park is based is also transformed.

1 of 25

Celtic’s greatest ever comeback was in 1967 against Inter Milan. How much of the game had been played before Celtic scored the equaliser?

The days of walking through the Barrowfield flats to go to the games, when the ground was surrounded by housing on almost all sides, are in the dim and distant pass.

And obviously it wasn’t just the brickwork that changed in the mid-1990s, now there at least seemed to be a challenge to Rangers, one that would reach its pinnacle in 1998.

Everything about Celtic altered for me in that period, though perhaps that’s more to do with my growing older rather than anything on the park.

With age came the independence of attending games on my own, no longer going with my Dad, albeit that the all-seated nature of the stadium means we still sit together.

Pre-match experiences involved the Oak Bar or the Five Ways pub, rather than autograph hunting.

And since the 2000s, it has been a conveyor belt of excitement, memories that will themselves also last the rest of my life.

There are European highs such as beating sides including Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester United and, most recently but no less excitedly, the last minute triumph over Lazio.

Or numerous crushing victories over Rangers – along with the 6-2 game including the best goal I’ve ever seen – on the way to an unprecedented time of success.

And even the nights which seem to be drifting aimlessly into ‘best forgotten’ can quickly turn, such as the Hamilton game last December with its dramatic late goals.

Until we meet again

Part of me will always live my Celtic experience through the prism of my first visits.

Walking under the north stand now inevitably brings forth memories of pre-match attempts of trying to avoid the rain whilst walking along Janefield Street.

Looking at the statues which bring to an end the ‘Celtic Way’ will carry with it those thoughts of chasing players for their autographs as they arrived late and sought to avoid Billy McNeill’s wrath.

And even looking at the new Emirates arena across from Celtic Park always reminds me of the top floor flat opposite Kerrydale Street where Loyalist flags could clearly be seen adorning the home’s walls!

Young or old, whatever your experiences of Celtic Park, there’s at least one thing we all share in common.

Until the current health crisis ends, the only visits we can make to Celtic Park have will involve our thoughts and recollections, whether it’s 30 years ago, or 30 days ago.

But there is one other thing we all share in common too.

It might be several months from now, but we know there will again be a show, and the Celtic and their fans will be there.

Matthew Marr is a Celtic fan and blogger from Glasgow. He is a frequent contributor to the site.

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