I THINK the tears started when James ventured onto the stage and began to tell us his story.

After a difficult childhood he’d begun to experience bouts of depression which became increasingly longer and more intense as he got older. Near to the point where the thought of taking his own life had become an appealing option someone had intervened to tell him about a project run by the Celtic Foundation. Now, a few years later he was doing the unthinkable: bearing witness to a room full of strangers about how he now felt valued. Life was full of beguiling possibilities once more.

And then there was Leeh, a fit and handsome young Englishman who quietly told this hushed audience about how the trauma of childhood abuse had led – as it often does – to drug and alcohol addiction. At his lowest point he was living in a tent pitched near Stirling Castle wondering if he would ever see the light of hope in his life. Once more, an intervention occurred and the Celtic Foundation was mentioned.

Leeh knew nothing of Celtic, or how this football club might help him to recover, but someone had reached out to him and offered him their hand. That moment had come for Leeh just a few years ago and, as it had done with James, the Celtic Foundation helped him begin the task of building something good in his life with the help of Celtic’s Recovery Café which, as James said, provides a safe space for some of society’s most vulnerable and most misunderstood people.

Ellen gifted us the story of her husband who had succumbed to dementia. Mental health has never really been a priority in Scotland’s Care System and so Ellen and her husband, like many couples in similar circumstances, had quickly begun to feel isolated and marginalised. They would have to bear this burden on their own.

And then, at a point where it seemed that what was left of life must be lived in despair and isolation, the Celtic Foundation was mentioned and, specifically, the Monday Lions Lunch Breaks for those with dementia and their loved ones. Once more, despair had given way to hope and the comfort of knowing that they didn’t have to face their challenges alone. Celtic, who had provided some of Ellen’s husband’s happiest moments, were now caring about him in his final days. These testimonies, along with several others, featured in the Celtic Foundation’s Showcasing Event earlier this week.

When the invitation to attend had dropped I hadn’t really known what to expect and had come close making my apologies and giving it a miss. My flight back from a weekend in Dublin was several hours late in departing and the will to make the effort was evaporating fast. Something was telling me, though, that this would be an important night and that I really had to be there. I’m glad I did because what I saw and heard made me more proud of being a Celtic supporter than cups and titles. It reminded me, once more, that these mean very little without these outreaches to the most vulnerable people in Scotland and beyond.

I’ve always known about the Celtic Foundation, but in a vestigial and peripheral way. It’s the club’s charitable arm, isn’t it? Probably not much different from the good works that many other football clubs carry out in their communities. And yet, occasionally, you’d hear a story or a snatch of one that hinted at something a little less ordinary.

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Occasionally, too, I’ve had cause to rebuke Celtic for not perhaps living up to the founding objectives of Brother Walfrid to help the poor and unemployed of Glasgow’s east end. All the while though, I wasn’t exactly rushing to the aid of those less fortunate than me. Any criticism of the club could probably also be levelled at me who had been blessed with advantages that so many of my fellow supporters can only dream about.

In the midst of the first Covid lockdown my friend, the football writer Kevin McCarra, died after suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s and I remembered a call I’d taken a few years previously from Tony Hamilton, the CEO of the Celtic Foundation. Tony had heard of Kevin’s condition and had wanted to invite him to their Lions Lunch Breaks. It was probably the memory of that simple act of kindness that had finally compelled me to be there at the Showcasing Event.

Hugh MacDonald, one of Scotland’s most gifted sportswriters, was also at Celtic Park. As he often does, he captured something of the spirit of the Celtic Foundation better than me and more poignantly than all the numbers of those this project have helped.

“Other football clubs have charitable arms,” he said. “But Celtic are like a charity with a football arm.”

He too had been overwhelmed by the scale and the simplicity of the Celtic Foundation and the way it had touched the lives of so many people.

Something else became apparent as each of those six people rose to tell their stories and the stories of their families. For most of them, the Celtic Foundation had come to them as a refuge of last resort. It had provided a helping hand when Scotland’s hard-pressed health and social care agencies could do no more. No one is ever turned away and no effort is ever spared. You were left with the impression that at Celtic someone, somewhere would care about you in your bleakest moments when all the other lights had gone out.

With each newly-minted league title or Scottish Cup there’s a barely-concealed curl of disdain among some of Scotland’s football writers. “It’s no great achievement when you’ve got the biggest budget and the greatest resources,” they say. And perhaps they have a point. But when you witness the sheer scale of Celtic’s social outreach you begin to realise that each triumph carries far more importance than the simple pleasure of being the best-in-class. It enables the mission of the Celtic Foundation to be extended a little more across Glasgow and the UK and into Africa and the Americas. It means a few more lives might be improved.

Consider this too: the geographical focus of the Celtic Foundation’s work targets Scotland’s most deprived communities as measured by the Scottish Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. The Foundation will always seek to spend the majority of its financial resources in these areas. 

On founding Celtic in 1887, Brother Walfrid said: “A football club will be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and the unemployed.” Amid the corporate creep of global capitalism in football, the knowledge that Celtic are fulfilling the mission of its founding father is more important than anything else that will happen on the field next season or any of the ones to come.

  • There are many ways in which you can be involved in this mission, from simple donations to volunteering. Go to: cfcfoundation@celticfc.co.uk