Another day in Paradise? Tony Hamilton and the Celtic FC Foundation's work

Celtic FC Foundation chief executive Tony Hamilton has a great sense of humour – just ask his eldest son – but his work involves the serious business of helping those in great need. Kenny Archer finds out more…

Tony Hamilton, chief executive of the Celtic FC Foundation, celebrates the second nine in-a-row with his wife Lynne and youngest son Joe.
Tony Hamilton, chief executive of the Celtic FC Foundation, celebrates the second nine in-a-row with his wife Lynne and youngest son Joe.

POLISH is a recurring influence in the life and family of Tony Hamilton, in varying ways.

The Celtic FC Foundation’s chief executive has a bizarre Twitter handle, @polishturnstile and a first-born with an unusual middle name.

Explaining that Twitter title, he laughs: “It’s something and nothing. My father [Joe], God rest him, would phone home at night and look for me and my wife would say ‘He’s still at work’; he’d ask, ‘What’s he doing down there, polishing turnstiles?’ It’s a nod to my da.”

The humour is passed on through the generations, although not everyone finds it funny.

Asked about his favourite Celtic games, Hamilton recalls: “It changes all the time, but September the 27th 1989 we beat Partizan Belgrade 5-4 and my eldest son was born three months to the day later – and I called him Anthony Dariusz Hamilton. He’s never really accepted that, to be honest.”

If you know your history you’ll know that four of Celtic’s goals in that European Cup-Winners’ Cup thriller were scored by Polish striker ‘Jacki’ Dziekanowski - real first name Dariusz.

Celtic still lost that tie on away goals, perhaps a precursor of the largely dreadful decade that was to follow for them.

There have been plenty of trophies to polish too, though, especially in recent years, with Celtic winning the last 11 domestic competitions - but that wasn’t always the case.

Born in the annus mirabilis of 1967, after the European Cup triumph, Hamilton could still consider himself unlucky as a supporter, at least for a few years.

His first visit to Celtic Park came in October 1975, a time when Rangers were champions again, having at last ended the Hoops’ dominance at nine in-a-row earlier that year.

He didn’t even get to see Celtic score, or much at all, and not because he was only eight and too short.

“My older brother Michael took me along. We were playing Hibernian, we were getting beat 2-0, and we all ended up on the pitch, it was abandoned – because of fog. It wasnae a classic at all.

“I went to a couple of other games and my father took me to Jock Stein’s testimonial in 1978. Then from around ’79 I just went on my own, I was 12 – and I’ve never really stopped going since.

“There were some really good times. I remember us winning the league, before Dundee United and Aberdeen were the dominant forces for a short while.

“I remember ‘10 men winning the league’, 41 years ago [when Celtic beat Rangers 4-2 to seal the 1979 title].

“’80, ’81 we were successful and then ’88, the centenary season – but the Nineties were just forgettable. That’s probably what drove me to drink more than anything.”

In the early Nineties, with Rangers dominant on the pitch en route to their nine in-a-row and Celtic financially troubled, any opportunity to poke fun at Rangers was taken – and someone else’s joke proved beneficial to Tony.

“There was a local radio broadcaster, `Tiger’ Tim Stevens, one of the original guys on Radio Clyde from 1973, who was also the stadium announcer at Celtic Park. There was a European game in September 1993 and he made an off-the-cuff remark about Rangers getting put out of Europe – and he got sacked.

“The club did various things for a couple of months, then Fergus [McCann] took over. The head of PR at Celtic had just been appointed and I’d presented a lot of civic events for Glasgow City Council, outdoor shows, big public gatherings, fireworks, Lord Provost’s Procession and such stuff, and he was aware of that and asked me to do it at Celtic.

“It fell into place for me, I identified an opportunity, worked hard, and it finally paid off.

“I was the half-time announcer for seven or eight years and I wrote for the ‘Celtic View’ and the match-day programme, and helped with some club events. In ’99 I took a staff job with the new media team, just setting up internet and Celtic TV, it was narrowband audio commentary.

“I ran a premium rate hotline for a number of years, interviewed Tommy Burns and a player every day and put the content up, pre-internet, supporters would dial up and listen.”

Hamilton’s progress continued, as did that of Celtic on the pitch: “Peter Lawwell [Celtic chief executive] came in in 2003 and I took over as head of multi-media and marketing in 2004, responsible for all the output and publications, the TV channel, we had a partnership with Setanta for a wee while.

“In 2013 I took over as chief executive of the Celtic FC Foundation, although I’m still employed by the football club.”

He’s been teetotal for 19 years now, but has still enjoyed plenty of celebrations.

Although he starting going to Celtic Park after the nine-in-a-row, that was only the first one. The second was confirmed last Monday, but the party was dampened somewhat by the strange circumstances.

“It was a good outcome but it was disappointing for the players because there’s forever going to be this eyebrow raised.

“The reality is, if you take the goal difference into account we were [effectively] 14 points ahead and nobody was every going to catch us. But it’s the uncertainty, I suppose…”

Yet there’s no doubt whatsoever that Celtic are in a better place than when Tony started working for them in 1994, a club living within its means on a sensible business model.

Fergus McCann saved and revived Celtic, even if supporters still occasionally crib about a perceived lack of spending.

Hamilton is happy with how the club operates: “It was still run professionally in the five years Fergus was there, but I never experienced the ‘biscuit tin’ mentality first hand.

“I’m aware of it because I went as a Celtic supporter for a number of years before I went to work there but I’ve never seen it close up. The business is run prudently and carefully but it’s not run frugally, I don’t think.”

In recent years Celtic have scouted promising prospects in the knowledge that they will have to sell them on in time – but only at a considerable profit.

“Peter [Lawwell] has been fairly open about that, in saying that we need to create Champions League players, that’s the model. That’s kinda screwed now because of other clubs, the only people I’ve heard that are considering spending money at the moment are Manchester United, and that’s on [former Celt Moussa] Dembele.

“Normally the back pages at this time are full of rumours about who’s moving where, but there’s been none of that.”

Yet even with that worry Celtic are on course to complete an unprecedented 10 in-a-row whenever Scottish football does return.

Hamilton accepts that, but insists: “I’m not complacent as supporter at all, I don’t think you can be. We lived through it in reverse in 1997-98. I’m slightly more nervous about the uncertainty, what the landscape will look like for everybody. That would be a wee leveller.

“Celtic fans have been talking – and singing - about this for two or three years now – Neil Lennon finally got to talk about it [last week]. That was the first time anyone from the club officially spoke about it, he feels he can now.

“I’m really excited about it, whenever we get football going again it could be a great season – without being complacent you’d have to fancy Celtic.”

Another day in Paradise? Tony Hamilton and the Celtic FC Foundation's work

LAST Monday’s date, May 18, was a memorable one for Celtic. Not only was it nine times two, it was also exactly 180 years since the birth of Brother Walfrid, the club’s founder, in Ballymote, Sligo.

The Celtic Football Club was constituted by the Marist Brother in late 1887 to raise funds for the Catholic poor in the impoverished east end of Glasgow. That work continues to this day via the Celtic FC Foundation – and has widened.

“For us, it’s an easy fit, it’s not fabricated,” says Tony Hamilton. “A lot of football clubs have found it difficult to establish why they do things for the community or for charity but it’s fairly straightforward for us: it’s why the football club was formed, to put food on tables. That’s what we do and that’s what we’ve gone back to doing.”

Barcelona make much of the motto that they’re ‘More than a club’ but it certainly applies to Celtic, as Hamilton confirms:

“Sir Robert Kelly, who was chairman when Celtic were the dominant force in the Sixties, I’ve found a film from the time when he used the phrase ‘Celtic is more than a club’.

“There were times when there was very little happening in terms of charity but it’s a big, big focus for us, it genuinely is part of who we are. It’s not about headlines for the club it’s about trying to make a difference in people’s lives.

“We do a lot with young offenders, try to keep them in employment and out of prison. I don’t know when we’ll get back to that, not until the turn of the year probably.”

The coronavirus crisis has changed the Foundation’s approach, explains Hamilton:

“Over the last three months everything else has been paused – all the fundraising has been paused, all of our normal delivery around employability, working with young offenders, kids who have Down’s Syndrome or autism, pensioners with dementia, all of that has been paused because life has been paused.

“We’re working with, I think, 36 other organisations. We’ve put 300 grand into the community and Peter [Lawwell] announced another 150 [last week].

“In the next few weeks we might turn that into a public appeal; so far we haven’t asked anybody for money. We’ve been working with partners we know can get food and essentials to people quickly.”

Much of the Foundation’s work is still centred on Glasgow “because life around Celtic Park is a wee bit different – different levels of life expectancy, unemployment, addiction.”

However, they’ve also reached out to Belfast, the Whiterock Children’s Centre and the Footprints Women’s Centre, and elsewhere, including London and New York:

“We raise a lot of money in London, we’ve done a wee bit in Edinburgh and various parts of Scotland, and New York, where we have a big support and do a big fundraising dinner every year. We’re helping children’s charities there, they’re really badly hit.”

For now, its back to feeding those in need: “The ‘Football For Good’ fund will be our focus for the rest of 2020.

“We’ve got a food bank partnership with the Church of Scotland, we’re supporting other food banks and kids’ charities, we’re feeding 100 frontline NHS staff at Glasgow Royal Infirmary every night, been doing that for [six] weeks now.

“A few homeless charities too, because life is really tough for those guys at the minute. That’s where our energy and emphasis is at moment

“The choice is we either do it or we don’t do it. We’re in a position to help. There are a load of organisations and football clubs doing good things as well.

“We know that we cannae boil the ocean, we know it’s not millions and millions of pounds, but it’s making a difference to people. I want to do more of that, that needs to be focus for the next six months.”

Hamilton is rightly proud of the Celtic ethos: “A club effectively born of immigrants, born of famine, is still helping.

“There’s no doubt that the success of the football club is directly related to the success of the Foundation. The biggest asset that I have is the club brand. That’s what people recognise, what engages people.

“It’s the way the club behaves, the way the players behave and the way the club’s executives do things that make a big, big difference for the Foundation.”