A Matter of Convention

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Of course, Celtic are a global brand – not just a European one.  There is a huge following in North America especially, thanks largely to the sheer number of ex-pats in both the US and Canada.  When you talk to them you hear the familiar stories of how they moved over there for work, but never lost that love of Celtic.  They’re scattered across the continent.  New York, Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, Bramalea, Orlando, Las Vegas, Houston… pretty much every major area – and some not so major – will have a Celtic supporters club.  All of them officially connected together through the club-affiliated North American Federation of Celtic Supporters Clubs.  And every year, they all get together for the North American Convention.  Every other year, the convention takes place in Las Vegas.  The years in between, the convention goes on the road.  For 2010, the destination was San Francisco.

 

Back in April, I was due to go to New York for a few days holiday.  Thanks to the Icelandic volcano however, my plans were scuppered as my flight out of Glasgow was among many that were cancelled.  My plans in ruins, I went seeking a backup plan.  Fortunately, after several hours of contacting my travel agent, I secured a refund from them.  With the money back, I was able to book up for something else.  My first instinct was just to book for New York again, but it was suggested to me that I should go to the convention in San Francisco instead.

I’d never been to any Celtic convention.  I’d never really considered it either.  For one thing, I’m a bit of a new generation Celtic fan.  Where the previous generations grew up meeting their mates in the pub before heading off to the game and standing in the same section of the Celtic end or the Jungle, or just met each other on the supporters bus, I was more used to the new seated grounds where you barely speak to the guy next to you because you don’t know him, and you go to the ground in your own car.  My experience of mixing with other Celtic fans has come more from message boards and web sites than physical meetings and conversations.  It’s one of those things I just feel like I’ve missed the boat on.  So the idea of going to the convention made me think of the depressing image of sitting in the corner, drinking on my own because I don’t know anyone, wondering when the week would end.  Not the most inviting of images.

Still, it’s not like I didn’t know anyone that was going.  Thanks to my internet connections – Twitter mainly – I already knew several people that had booked up.  Admittedly, people I’d never actually physically met, but that’s the 21st Century for you.  So I made up my mind and decided I’d book up for it and see what it was all about.  Well… I say “I”, but I mean “we” – I’m fortunate enough to have a fiancée that was even keener to go to a Celtic convention than I was.

We decided it was probably best that if we were going, we were doing it properly.  So I got in touch with the guys running the convention – the San Francisco CSC – and got us booked on a couple of the day trips they were running, as well as securing tickets for the highlight of any North American convention – the dinner dance.  We got ourselves booked up to go to Alcatraz and a Baseball game while we were there too, but this is an article about the Celtic convention, not my holiday!

It’s only when you need to travel it that you realise just how big this planet is.  San Francisco is a little over 5000 miles from Glasgow.  We stopped, ironically given how we’d come to book this, in New York.  The two flights combined totalled over 15 hours of flying.  It’s an exhausting journey.  But one we weren’t making alone.  On our second flight, I sat down and immediately whipped out my “Playing for the LostBhoys” book that I’d been reading.  That got a bit of commotion from the three older guys sitting across the aisle from me.  They asked me about the book and I told them about the LostBhoys web site, adding how the profits from the book sales were going to the Good Child Foundation.  They passed it around each other.  The guy closest to me asked me why I was going to San Francisco.  I explained I was going to the Celtic convention.  He asked me who Celtic were.  I just looked at him and his serious looking face.

Dixie Deans is brilliant at dead pan.

Sitting next to Dixie were Pat McCluskey and Joe McBride.  They’d flown from Edinburgh together and later told me that Kathleen Murdoch, widow of Bobby and star of Celtic Underground Podcast 92, must have been on the same flight we had been on from Glasgow.  So here I was, on the way to my first convention, and already I  was talking to the star guests.  This was going to be a good week.

The first day was one where nothing was planned as far as the convention was concerned.  We used it to go exploring.  When we got back to the hotel, we found our way to the “Paradise Bar” – the hotel bar that had been effectively given over to the Celtic convention.  We took one look at the prices and decided this was definitely the best place to be.  I never confirmed it, but I’d guess those prices were subsidised by those organising the convention.  Nice one guys, much appreciated!  Although I’m not sure my liver did…

Sitting in the bar, getting suitably refreshed, we looked around and immediately felt young.  Almost everyone else in the bar could have been ages with our parents, or older.  That seems to be the way it goes with the ex-pats.  Although it took us a while to start speaking to people – at one point we were almost living that feared image of sitting in the corner having a quiet drink – the majority of those that we spoke to had made the move across the pond in the 70s or 80s.

I wondered if I was going to fit in here.  I know nothing about leaving Scotland for anything longer than a holiday.  Many of these people had been away from Scotland for longer than I’d lived.  What have I got in common with these people?

Celtic of course.

Maybe the biggest mistake I made in those first few days was wearing a regular dress shirt.  I should have stuck a Celtic replica jersey on instead.  It was Wednesday by the time I did that, and it was around that same time that we started talking to more people.  It might have been coincidence as that was also the day of the first of the day trips, but how is anyone supposed to know I’m the same as them if I just sit there and don’t talk to anyone?

When we did get round to actually talking to people – and full credit to the ever-presents at these things because it was more down to them coming to talk to us than anything else – it was clear that the feeling was pretty much the same all round.  Firstly, the San Francisco guys had made a great fist of the job no one wants.  Putting together the convention is a lot of work, and the years it’s not in Las Vegas tend to be a lot quieter than the years that it is.  The comment that “Las Vegas is better than this” was one that was made a lot to us over the course of the week.  That’s not a slight against the San Francisco guys, far from it.  It’s just a fact that when the convention is in Las Vegas, the number of people that attend the convention is far greater, and it’s the volume of people that improves the over all atmosphere.  It’s the one thing the San Francisco guys couldn’t control.

The Wednesday bus trip to Monterey, 17-mile drive and Carmel was great to see the surrounding area, while the Thursday bus trip of a tour of San Francisco let us see the sights of the city… these were great ideas and two fantastic days.  Of course, if you didn’t fancy that there were always golf outings.  I’m sure they were great for those that play the game, but I don’t so I’ve no idea how they went.  The cabaret night on the Thursday was a good night’s entertainment and the drink and song were both free-flowing by the end.  These were all wonderfully planned and put together.  The highlight of any convention of course is the dinner dance, and this was no exception as the San Francisco guys had set up a trip in the bay on the San Francisco Belle – a rather large multi-tiered boat.  If you think San Francisco looks good by day, you should see the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset from in the bay.

There’s no doubt that the San Francisco convention was a success – at least as far as the San Francisco CSC could control it.  You can’t make the fans go, but those that did certainly enjoyed themselves.  I include myself in that merry band of Celtic fans.  I’m rather curious to see just what a difference the Las Vegas one makes.  Because for me there’s one crucial thing missing from the convention whether it’s in Las Vegas or elsewhere, and that’s the involvement of Celtic FC plc themselves.

When the Rangers convention is in town as it was in Vegas this year, you’ll find current players.  Sometimes, when they have them, they might even take across the odd trophy.  I heard something about them taking the Scottish Cup over one year.  Obviously not this year.

Celtic, on the other hand, didn’t even acknowledge that there was a North American Celtic convention.  No mention of it in any of the club publications.  There were no current players on display.  No surprise there was no trophies this year, but there never is – not even one of the European Cup replicas that makes an appearance at many of the occasions that Celtic do bother with.

So why is it that the PLC don’t acknowledge this event?  It’s clear from our actions, and even from the words of Peter Lawwell himself, that Celtic try to sell the brand globally.  Surely a Celtic convention in North America is an absolutely ideal time to sell that brand?  Get official merchandise sold there, get exposure for the players over there.  Is this something reserved for pre-season tours?  Most importantly though, a bit of recognition for some of the most faithful Celtic fans there are wouldn’t go a miss.

We in Scotland think we have it hard when Sky or ESPN move  our fixture against Aberdeen or Inverness to a lunch time kick off.  Oh the hardship of having to get up early to travel a few hours up the road to get to the game.  Or maybe it’s just a pain trying to get into the pub that doesn’t open until lunch time on the Sunday anyway.  I know I’ve made those complaints myself.  Well, if you think half 12 on a Sunday in Aberdeen is difficult from Glasgow, try it from New York where that kick off time is half 7 in the morning.  Or worse, try it from San Francisco where it’s half 4.  Could you get up at half 4 on a Sunday morning?  Most of us would probably still be up from the Saturday night before!

It’s no better for the weekday evening kick offs.  While we in Scotland have usually finished work by the standard Champions League kick off time of 7.45pm, at 2.45pm in New York it’s the middle of the afternoon.  In San Francisco it’s just coming up on midday.  Fancy trying to watch Celtic on your lunch break?  I don’t know about anyone else, but my lunch break has never lasted 90 minutes plus another 20 at half time!

The bhoys and ghirls in North America – and admittedly all across the globe – have to make huge sacrifices to continue following the team they love.  With increased TV coverage and the internet it’s certainly a lot easier than it was when many of them emigrated over there in the first place, but it’s still hard going.  Don’t these fans deserve even a little recognition from the PLC?  Or is it just a case of thanks for your Channel 67 subscription money, enjoy the show because that’s all you’re getting?  Surely they deserve more.

What it does do though, is make you appreciate the huge difference in how football was and how it is.  While there was nothing from the current crop at Celtic, I was honoured to get the chance to speak to past greats like Dixie, Pat and Joe.  Kathleen was as delightful as she had sounded on the podcast too.  Can you imagine trying to talk to Aiden McGeady on the plane over there?  What about chatting to Darren O’Dea around the breakfast table?  Would you be able to see yourself standing talking to Scott Brown at the bar?  Okay, maybe that last one works, but you get the idea.  The greats of the past seemed more accessible back when they were playing than the current crop do, and that hasn’t changed in the years since they stopped playing.  The team and the fans just seemed to be less disparate then than they are now.  Maybe it’s the difference in money.  It’s not like I was flying business class to sit next to the invited guests!  Maybe it’s just an attitude thing though, because I could imagine sitting there with Neil Lennon in years to come, and he’s far more recent.

If the fan meetings that are still taking place really are Celtic attempting to reconnect with an increasingly isolated support, then I would hope they continue down that path beyond the summer.  I’d like to see more communication from the upper echelons down to us fans.  More than that though, I think that recognising that there are fans on every corner of the planet would be another step that Celtic should be making to reconnect.

The North American Convention returns to Las Vegas in 2011.  Celtic could do a lot worse than send manager Neil Lennon and a couple of the current squad over to meet the ex-pat support that will father there.  Not only that, but as it’s June they can go there and enjoy themselves after a hard fought season.

Ideally with the newly reclaimed SPL trophy.

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